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Coutre resigns from MUSD board; seat to be filled after election

MARICOPA — Patti Coutre, a 10-year veteran Maricopa Unified School District board member and busy mom-of-four, celebrated her last day on the board after resigning Thursday. She attributed her leave to employment changes during the pandemic but is excited about her new job working in MUSD administration.

“It’s still a little hard,” Coutre said of her decision to leave the board. “This morning I woke up and I’m no longer a board member, no more emails. I had to take down my board Facebook page. It’s just going to take a while for me to get used to this because for 10 years, being on the board has been my life. But, I do promise that I am not disappearing, I’m always going to be active in the community.”

Her track record over the last decade has included many important decisions made by the board as the district has grown every year. She has been a vocal proponent for a new high school to address overcrowding. However, one of her favorite parts of being a board member was getting to see the outcome of hard work for MUSD students.

“The fondest memories that I have are all of the end-of-the-year celebrations, graduations, promotions,” Coutre said. “Graduation was always my favorite, to be able to congratulate each student as they walked across the stage of their accomplishment. ... That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”

Coutre had been working with a catering company until recently, but with many events canceled due to the pandemic, the gigs dried up. She had been seeking full-time employment since July and found the perfect fit as the new facilities and operations administrative assistant for MUSD, where she will help maintain the facilities and grounds of the district and its schools.

“It’s a huge support role, making sure that our schools and the district office has what they need to do,” Coutre said.

Her new role is a great fit for her previous experience in running offices and customer servicing over the last 10 to 15 years, and she hopes to maintain that connection to MUSD through her new position. But she’s sad about leaving her board position, nearly two years before her scheduled term completion in 2022.

“I love the school district, I love what we built, I love the progress and where we’re going, and I wanted to continue to be a part of that after my board service; it’s just, unfortunately, COVID just kind of upped that timing,” Coutre said sadly. “I do regret the fact that we’re in the middle of this property and COVID, but I have to do what’s best for my family.”

As a board member, Coutre worked long hours and used vacation time to attend workshops to become a better board member. She simultaneously raised her kids in Maricopa schools, also serving as vice president of the Maricopa High School Football Booster Club. Her three eldest have “flown the coop,” but her youngest son is at MHS as a sophomore.

“They have been so supportive for these past 10 years with me being on the board and missing birthdays, missing games and missing events,” Coutre said of her children.

Coutre said she realized after joining the board what a strenuous process running a district can be, but still, she is very proud of the work she managed to accomplish from the dais.

“The struggle that I saw was our communication piece, not only internally, but externally,” Coutre said. “I think that throughout the years, throughout the different superintendents and their leadership, that has drastically improved. I’m very, very proud of that. In fact, I think now it’s to the point where people are going, ‘Why am I getting all these messages from the school?’” she joked.

Her resignation comes just over a month before the Nov. 3 board election, which has four candidates for three open seats. Coutre is supporting Tracie Armstead-Payton for one of the board seats, commending her for her history in education.

“I’ve had several conversations with Tracie,” Coutre said. “She comes from the Midwest, she really has a good grasp on our education. I think she’s gonna be a great asset to the board, if she should win. I’m going to vote for her.”

According to Mark Krumrey with the Pinal County School Office, Coutre’s seat will not be on the ballot in November. Krumrey said the board opening would be posted after Jan. 1, and there will be no guarantee that the fourth candidate not chosen by the public in this election will be the one chosen by the county superintendent for the remaining two years of Coutre’s term.

“Any eligible resident within the Maricopa Unified School District No. 20 who is interested in being appointed will be able to apply with the Pinal County School Superintendent’s Office when the publication of accepting applications has been made,” Krumrey said in a press release.

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JoAnn Ortega, much loved community member and volunteer, dies of cancer

MARICOPA — Just inside the beautiful stained-glass room of Our Lady Of Grace Catholic Church, or possibly behind the firetruck at Kids Day Maricopa, or even hidden under the velvet curtains of a children’s play, stood JoAnn Ortega.

Her frame was only 5-foot-4, but in life she seemed much larger, the definition of a golden-hearted community member. Often behind the scenes, she never dared point the spotlight on herself, opting instead to work in the background to better the community.

“Mom had the biggest heart,” her son Paul Matthew Ortega said. “There was no standing on a soapbox proclaiming it. It was who she was.”

Ortega, 66, died on Sept. 24 after a hard-fought battle with kidney cancer. She leaves behind her two adult children, Paul and Joseph Michael; her husband, Deacon Mario Ortega; and a pair of shoes too big for most to fill.

“She just did a lot of good for Maricopa,” Mayor Christian Price said. “Anytime you go out and find those individuals who are so willing to serve, and willing to be just kind to everybody and find ways to better people’s lives, even in the smallest most minute way, those are the types of (people) that you hate to see pass on.”

Ortega was born in Tucson in 1954 and spent her entire life in southern Arizona. Her first grandchild, Aurelia, is the seventh generation in a family of Arizonans. “We’ve been here since Arizona was a state,” Paul said.

She lived a life of public service, starting her 30-year career with the Arizona Department of Economic Security at 18, working her way up the ladder to administration. She eventually switched to the Department of Public Safety for a few years before retiring around 2013.

She and her husband made the move to Maricopa in 2008 from Casa Grande to help start Our Lady Of Grace Catholic Church, where her husband is a deacon. She also holds an advanced certification in pastoral ministry, which she was awarded alongside her husband. She taught catechism classes and did lector training for reading scripture at Mass, where “she was very adamant that you needed to sound your vowels,” Mario joked.

But it was after her retirement when Ortega really threw herself into community work.

“I think she’s one of those that got better with age,” Paul said. “After she retired, she really started giving back to the community through Rotary here in Maricopa, through the church, as well as certain things for the city.”

She held many positions with Maricopa Rotary Club, including treasurer and secretary, and was twice president. She was instrumental in fundraising for Rotary scholarships and often behind the scenes organizing Kids Day, Our Lady Of Grace Community Festival and Car Show, or whatever event the community threw at her. She sat on the local housing committee and was involved in city cultural affairs, police, and parks and recreation as a regular volunteer. She and Councilwoman Julia Gusse worked together frequently, coming together to form a women’s leadership group.

In January, Ortega was honored with the Dream Award at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Dream Awards event for her community support and dedication.

“I don’t think people understand the hours and the work just a handful of people in this community work to put on some of the biggest events in town, and JoAnn was one of those handful of people,” said John Stapleton, Ortega’s colleague and friend. “JoAnn had that sense of understanding where she could see the big picture in every situation — that is a quality not everyone has. She didn’t stress the small stuff and often in volunteer situations, people panic, complain and oftentimes it leads to friction. But JoAnn had a way of working past that, pulling people together and in the end, it always worked out.”

Stapleton said Ortega was like a loving aunt to him and a person he felt like he could trust to be honest and wise. This was something echoed by many who knew her.

“I didn’t realize until about three weeks ago how special my mom was to everybody,” Paul said. “She wasn’t just my mom, she had several other of my friends that she just adopted. She would give advice, you know, ‘Stay for dinner’ or anything to help people out. She was a wonderful counselor.”

Paul laughed that even some of his friends met his mom before they met him, as she was so involved in the community. Though his mom was larger than life to most, she had a special connection with her two sons.

Paul was involved in children’s theater from the time he was in second grade, and Ortega made sure he was adorned in all the proper costumes a theater kid could ever want.

“It was incredible that they loved me so much and that she supported me enough to work on these costumes,” Paul said. “She loved to sew, and just create these beautiful garments.”

She sewed fabulous coats and flashy flapper dresses. She sewed buttons and sequins and anything her son desired, and when he grew up and became the director of his own plays for Casa Grande Youth Theater, she sewed those ensembles too. She even made a guest appearance in his rendition of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” fittingly portraying the mother character.

The duo created performances that stood out even years later, when Paul’s colleagues fondly recalled his mother’s handiwork as the “most beautiful” performance in the last two decades.

He joked that the only hardships his mom went through were “the ones that I put her through.”

About a decade ago, Paul grew nearly fatally ill with a chronic condition while living in Florida. His parents flew out regularly to stand by his bedside in the hospital, and Ortega fought hard for her son.

“When I was really ill in hospice, I didn’t hear about this until a month later, the doctor took her into the hall and said, ‘OK, start making your final plans, your son is probably going to leave,’” Paul said.

But Ortega wasn’t having any of that.

“She basically laid him out and she said, ‘My son is the most stubborn person I know. And if God has put him on this earth to get something done, then I know that he’s going to do everything he can to stay here. So you need to get back into that room, and you need to do everything you can for him,’” Paul said tearfully.

Paul is now happily married to Anthony Peters. His older brother Joseph is a captain and paramedic for Arizona City Fire District, formerly working with Maricopa Fire as an EMT for Southwest Ambulance, and is the father of 5-year-old Aurelia with his wife Rebecca Ann.

“She reminds me of JoAnn quite a bit in the way she carries herself,” Mario said of his granddaughter, who goes by Auri. “She's starting to get a little bossy. She wants everything in its place. … I’ve got a little JoAnn on my hands.”

Mario is also a former Maricopa Police officer and retired Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper. He was badge No. 3 at the Maricopa department and served as an officer for several years before his retirement.

He remembers his wife of 46 years as kindhearted and neat as a pin. She liked things a certain way, but often that way was the best way, he said.

“We always went together anywhere and everywhere. She would get involved in all my activities as well. She was my partner, and I admire her for that,” Mario said. “I guess you could say we never left our sides, just when I was working or she was working. When we’d come home, she’d be there. She was always telling me that I have to do this, I have to do that. This is better for you.”

He called her Jo. The two met at a dusty 76 Truck Stop outside Eloy, where they both worked in the 1960s. There he was pumping gas while she worked the desk. One day one of his coworkers sauntered over and teased Mario that the pretty girl behind the counter liked him.

“I said, ‘Naaah,’” Mario said.

But a few nights later Mario clocked out and was getting ready to walk the 4-mile journey back to Eloy when he spotted her in her car and asked for a ride. She at first declined, revealing that her uncle, who owned the truck stop, wouldn’t allow her to drive anyone.

“She went against his wishes and she gave me a ride,” Mario said cheekily. They were engaged the following year, in 1974.

It wasn’t until later they realized fate had crossed their paths even sooner than they had thought.

“We went to the same elementary school in Eloy in ’63, and then they moved away,” Mario said. “The next time I saw her was at a dance. I still remember the dress she was wearing. I asked her to dance. I didn’t know how to dance at the time — I was stepping on her toes. I went and asked her to dance again and then I didn’t see her anymore until the truck stop.

“I guess we were meant to be, as the saying goes.”

In the months before Ortega became sick, she and Mario had planned to take a pilgrimage to Israel with their church. Though she struggled with steps and walking, she pushed herself to go. She was diagnosed with kidney cancer shortly after their return.

Later, when asked by a friend why she still went to Israel when she knew she was sick, she replied, “‘My husband wanted to go to Israel. … I just bit the bullet, if you will, and I went with him.’

“I didn’t know that until just recently, that she had made such an extreme sacrifice,” Mario said emotionally.

She died Sept. 24 after a two-year battle with cancer. When she passed, she was comfortable at home, surrounded by her loved ones: her sister Cindie Wilson, her brother Andy Hernandez, her sons, her husband, her family.

Still, the memory of her lives on in the people she knew and loved the most. A few days after her death, Mario swore he heard someone walking down the hall.

“I hear this tap-tapping, like somebody walking down the hall. And in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, what did I do wrong?’” he said. He joked that he was hard-headed, and that she was coming to tell him off for doing something “his way.”

“I was always messing with her, just to see her reaction,” he said with a smile.

But it was Paul’s dog Hank who turned the corner at the end of that hallway.

“He sees me and I go, ‘Oh, it’s you,’” Mario said. “He gives me this look like, ‘Well, what did you expect?’

“The thing is, I find peace that she’s not gone,” Mario said. “She lives in everyone she touched. She lives in their heart and their memories. Doing that — remembering something funny or whatever — we’re keeping her alive in our hearts. I believe that.”

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Pima Butte Elementary School wins National Blue Ribbon award

MARICOPA — A Maricopa school has achieved national acclaim for its dedication to education and high performance by being designated a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Pima Butte Elementary was chosen as one of 367 schools across the nation that showed overall exemplary academic performance or managed to close achievement gaps among students.

Up to 420 schools are nominated each year, and the school first heard it had been chosen as a finalist in the spring.

“It’s an exciting award to be recognized for because only five schools within the state are even nominated,” Pima Butte Principal Elizabeth Allison said. “The fact that we were nominated is huge, and then the fact that we were designated as a Blue Ribbon School was even more exciting.”

The school was nominated in the Exemplary High Performing Schools category, which puts it among the highest performing schools in the state, according to state assessments and national testing.

“The coveted National Blue Ribbon Schools award affirms the hard work of educators, families and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging and engaging content,” Mishell Terry, spokeswoman for Maricopa Unified School District, wrote in a press release.

This is the 38th year of the national recognition, and the program has presented nearly 10,000 awards to more than 9,000 schools with some schools scooping multiple wins. Normally schools would be awarded during a ceremony, but this year the ceremony will be held virtually Nov. 12 and 13.

Allison credits her team of teachers and staff at Pima Butte as a reason for their success in the last few years.

“A lot of schools struggle with staff retention in general, especially in the state of Arizona,” Allison said. “One thing here at Pima Butte, we have a high retention of our staff. Our staff is dedicated to their students and their community and I think that has really helped us to continue to provide high-quality instruction.”

The principal said this award, along with designation as an A-plus school a couple years ago, shows her how far the school has come.

“Our goal here is to continue to do what we know is best for students, continue to monitor student data, continue to provide quality instruction and just continue to challenge ourselves and always try to continue to improve,” Allison said.