Apr. 30, 2005
"The investigation is proceeding," Horne said. "If there is abuse of taxpayer money, we will seek disciplinary action. This is still a serious matter."
Horne said in March 2004 that he planned to ask Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard to investigate reports by The Arizona Republic and CNN that an estimated 90 students living in Sonoyta, Mexico, were enrolled in school in Ajo.
Attorneys in Goddard's office prepared a
detailed legal analysis and sent it to Horne last year, but the state
still has not requested public records from the local school district or
county to verify students' residency claims.
The controversy has put the small school district in Ajo, an old copper mining town southwest of Tucson, in turmoil. Already facing declining enrollment, the district stands to lose more than $425,000 in funding if the estimated 80 to 85 students who now catch the bus at the U.S.-Mexican border are culled from its rolls.
"It would be a major blow," said Robert Dooley, superintendent of the Ajo School District. "It would mean layoffs of staff."
U.S. immigration officials said most of the students who cross the border each day for school were born in the United States and have citizenship, even though their parents are from Mexico. Still, even though they are citizens, state law requires that they live in the United States in order to go to American schools.
Although some local residents have supported educating the students, others expressed growing frustration with the state's stalled investigation into what they call a poorly kept secret.
"These kids don't live in Arizona. Not if they have to cross that border every morning," said Bud Ballard, a 73-year-old retiree who has lived in Ajo for 15 years. "All you have to do is stand (at the port of entry) with a video camera."
Each school day, the routine is the same. By 6:30 a.m., two empty school buses, sent by Pima County, pull into the tiny town of Lukeville and park within a few hundred yards of the border crossing.
Dozens of boys and girls walk from the Mexican town of Sonoyta into the United States through the port of entry, some chatting, dribbling basketballs and toting backpacks. A line of roughly 15 to 20 trucks, cars and minivans forms at the border as parents wait to drop their children at the bus stop and then head back into Mexico.
According to Ajo School District records, 85 children ride the buses that run from Lukeville 43 miles north to school. But Lukeville, little more than a strip mall, gas station, motel, RV park and general store, has a total population of 65.
County and school officials are at a loss to explain the discrepancy. But they haven't asked Al Gay, who has owned the town of Lukeville, a popular stop on the way to Rocky Point, Mexico, for 40 years. He said he rents trailers to Mexican families at a reduced rate, as a gesture of "goodwill."
"They rent a trailer space from me at $50 a month. My regular rate is $200 a month," Gay said, sitting behind a desk in an aging office, chomping on an unlit Mexican cigar. "I do that simply because those kids need the education, and it creates goodwill between Mexicans and Americans, and it will in the future."
"They are poor children, poor kids," he said, spitting out a chunk of cigar.
Gay said he doesn't know how many Mexican families pay him rent or how many families, if any, actually live in the trailers on his property.
Because Lukeville does not have a school, Pima County officials are responsible for verifying the students' Lukeville residency claims before busing them to Ajo. Linda Arzoumanian, Pima County schools superintendent, insisted that each of the children has provided proof but denied a request by The Republic for the list of student addresses.
"We have rent receipt verification for all those children," she said.
Children are required to prove they live within a school district's boundaries to attend school in Arizona. But since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1982, officials have been prohibited from asking their citizenship. The children bused from Lukeville pass through the port of entry and are allowed into the country by U.S. immigration inspectors.
Once the children are bused by Pima County to Ajo, the school district is required by law to provide an education, said Dooley, the Ajo superintendent.
"There's no law . . . that allows us to turn students away if we have room, which we do," he said. "The benefit, in my opinion, is that these (students) are citizens of the United States, and the better their education, the more they are going to contribute to our culture."
Susan Segal, chief of the attorney general's public advocacy division, said her office was told to analyze the state residency law but not to verify the students' addresses. The results of the legal analysis, which are protected by attorney-client privilege, were forwarded to Horne, Segal said.
Horne, whose department is responsible for distributing state taxpayer dollars to schools based on enrollment figures, said he has no timeline for the investigation. He said the department plans to file a public records request with the county to verify student addresses and may have more information "within a few weeks."