Death threats, a catcalling crowd, then a BB zinging the school board president's car window. The Higley Unified School District is in an uproar, recalling two-thirds of its governing board, and bickering about a possible consolidation with the Gilbert Unified School District.
"It's like ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ out here," said Higley governing board president Todd Nuttall. Nuttall said his children have been threatened, and he's tired of attending unruly board meetings in which a small, vocal group of individuals chants "recall, recall." The final straw was after a board meeting in late March when his car was shot at, he said.
"I thought it was a rock until I looked and I saw the marks of a clear divot above my head, right on the driver's side door, above my left temple," he said.
The car had been shot at with an air rifle, said Gilbert police spokesman Lt. Joe Ruet.
The district is arranging for police security at future public board meetings, said Catherine Gerber, Higley's interim superintendent. Community members said the "Dukes of Hazzard" feeling is new to the 100-year-old community. Many attributed the decline in goodwill to the arrival of the current governing board, and its decision in December to make superintendent Larry Likes a special administrator on leave. Likes will retire in June after 21 years with the district.
"People have strong opinions about Likes and the direction the school district should move in," said Ann Gladesky, who has two children in the Higley Unified School District. Nuttall and board secretary Peggy Zornes face a recall election in September. Zornes said she hasn't been threatened directly, but was warned after last week's board meeting that she's "getting too close to Nuttall."
Parents involved in the recall initiative said they don't like the direction the board is moving in, but they are in no way intimidating its members.
"That's just not right,” said Kim Anderson, a parent who supports the recall. “People shouldn't treat people like that, and it's nobody I'm associated with. This is strictly a political issue." Parents who initiated the recall said Nuttall is the one intimidating others.
Parents said Zornes was recalled as well because the two appeared to frequently break public meeting laws by showing up together in public, creating a quorum of the three-member board.
Nuttall said he doesn't agree with the recall of Zornes and himself, but he has accepted that "a small, vocal group of people can undo what a large percentage of people voted for." Elaine DeTemple has lived in the area most of her life. She and her children are Higley High graduates, and she taught for 18 years at Higley Elementary. She also considered running for the governing board, but has put those plans on hold.
"It's really crazy to think people are getting so high emotionally that they would shoot at someone," she said. "It's a hard, small core of people who get each other stirred up because they want to control the district."
District officials said the perception of violence connected to the recall is overstated.
"It is inappropriate for someone to make threats, but sometimes that's part of the territory of holding a public office," board member Edwin Moore said. Regardless of where community members line up on the recall issue, or whether they believe Nuttall's allegations are blown out of portion, they all agreed on one thing: The wounds created by the division run deep. "I think it's going to take years to reunite this district because there are such strong feelings on both sides," DeTemple said.