Authors Articles byMichelle Chance

Michelle Chance

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Maricopa High School students participated in a demonstration Friday morning on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

More than 100 students began the event with a 17-minute moment of silence in remembrance of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims in Parkland, Florida.

The student-led event occurred during National School Walk-Out Day – a countrywide protest in which students walked out of school for the day in commemoration of school shooting victims and in frustration with what many view as a lack of action by lawmakers against classroom gun violence.

MHS students held their demonstration on campus and deemed it non-political. Previously, students walked-out Feb. 17, days after the Parkland shooting, but eventually returned to class.

“We didn’t want it to be so political because honestly the problem is right here in our own schools,” said Brianna Barnes, 17, with the Student Concord Club.

Barnes said students are asking for more lockdown drills and additional safety measures on campus.

Law enforcement and first responders were at MHS during the event and held a static display of vehicles and equipment during lunchtime.

“We want our students to be aware of the resources available to the high school and community in the event of an emergency situation,” an email from MHS to parents stated.

Friday’s demonstration included a passionate speech authored by 16-year-old Simon Crawford during the first two classes of the morning.

The self-described introvert wanted to speak about school safety during the February walk-out, but didn’t have the courage.

Friday, Crawford found the bravery, climbed atop a lunch table and read the message aloud.

“People need to be aware because there’s so much misinformation and misconceptions spread about all these issues,” Crawford said after the event. “People try to make this such a heavy political issue when it’s not — and we should not be treating it as such.

“This is a safety issue. This is a lives issue. This is a human issue,” Crawford added.

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Schools in the Maricopa Unified School District could close late next week after teachers voted to approve a statewide walk-out.

Leaders of the #RedForEd movement announced Thursday evening the walk-out is slated to begin April 26 following three consecutive days of walk-in events that week.

Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United collation have not placed a limit on how long the walk-out will last.

Educators voted on the matter this week and the results showed they “overwhelmingly support” a walk-out, according to the AEA and AEU.

AEA President Joe Thomas said in a press conference Thursday evening that 78 percent of the 57,000 votes cast supported a strike.

The vote comes after widespread rebuke from the Arizona education community regarding Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal last week which he said would increase teacher salaries by 20 percent – including the one percent raise approved last year.

Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United coalition have criticized the proposal as hastily presented and shortsighted.

“This vote was not an easy decision for educators,” AEA Vice President and Isaac Middle School teacher Marisol Garcia said in a news release. “As I turned in my ballot today, I thought about my son, my colleagues, and my students. By voting today, I am standing up for my son and all students in Arizona and the public schools they deserve.”

Educators in the trenches argue the movement is about more than just teacher salary, but also increased compensation for support staff and per-pupil funding among other issues.

Walk-out information was posted to the MUSD website Thursday evening ahead of the highly anticipated announcement by the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United coalition.

Parents will have to utilize alternative child care in the event of a walk-out, according to the document.

“If a walkout occurs, the only way to ensure the safety and well-being of our students is to close our schools. We notified families of the possibility of a walk out and we have asked parents to make a plan for alternate arrangements for their children if a walk out occurs. The district will not have staff to provide any services at the school site. The district could not vet outside resources, so would not be able to make any recommendations for child care options, feeding options, or any services not directly provided by the district.”

Any days MUSD schools are spent in closure will have to be made up at the end of the school year.

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman encouraged parents in a district email to rely on the MUSD internal communication “ConnectEd” to stay informed on possible school closures:

“Dear MUSD parents,

You may be aware that many of our teachers and staff have been participating in statewide efforts to increase awareness for teacher and staff salaries and the need for additional public education funding.

These efforts have included a rally at the State Capitol, social media campaigns and peaceful walk-ins to schools each Wednesday morning. Staff are organizing independently and on their own time. We respect our teachers and staff in their unity efforts and appreciate that they are non-disruptive of the instructional day.

We want to make you aware that there is the potential for teacher walk-outs across Arizona. No decision or date has been set by the organizers, but as a district we are working to determine the impact on school operations. In the event of a work stoppage, we would more than likely close the schools and do everything we can to provide you with advanced notice. We will use our ConnectEd notification system to get information to you. Please make sure that your phone numbers and email address are current in our student information system.

We are fortunate to have a community that consistently supports our schools. We appreciate our dedicated employees who continue to focus on meeting the needs of our students. And we appreciate all of you and your support of our schools while these statewide actions are under way.


Dr. Tracey Lopeman and Superintendent’s Cabinet”

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Schools could close if teachers in the Maricopa Unified School District walk-out in the future. Information posted to the MUSD website was published Thursday evening ahead of a highly anticipated announcement by leaders of the #RedForEd movement.

Information posted to the MUSD website was published Thursday evening ahead of a highly anticipated announcement by leaders of the #RedForEd movement.

The Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United coalition are expected to reveal the results of a statewide vote April 19 at 8 p.m. to determine teachers’ support of a future walk-out.

Teachers participated in the voting this week, as well as their second walk-in on April 18.

The vote comes after widespread rebuke from the Arizona education community regarding Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal that he said would increase teacher salaries by 20 percent – including the one percent raise approved last year.

AEU and AEA leaders have criticized the proposal as hastily presented and shortsighted.

The date and length of the proposed walk-out is still unknown. MUSD Human Resources Director Tom Beckett said leaders of the local teacher association assured district officials “no walk-out is scheduled for Friday.”

Any days MUSD schools are spent in closure due to the walk-out will have to be made up at the end of the school year, according to the district document.

“If a walkout occurs, the only way to ensure the safety and well-being of our students is to close our schools. We notified families of the possibility of a walk out and we have asked parents to make a plan for alternate arrangements for their children if a walk out occurs. The district will not have staff to provide any services at the school site. The district could not vet outside resources, so would not be able to make any recommendations for child care options, feeding options, or any services not directly provided by the district.”

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman encouraged parents in a district email to rely on the MUSD internal communication “ConnectEd” to stay informed on possible school closures:

“Dear MUSD parents,
You may be aware that many of our teachers and staff have been participating in statewide efforts to increase awareness for teacher and staff salaries and the need for additional public education funding.
These efforts have included a rally at the State Capitol, social media campaigns and peaceful walk-ins to schools each Wednesday morning. Staff are organizing independently and on their own time. We respect our teachers and staff in their unity efforts and appreciate that they are non-disruptive of the instructional day.
We want to make you aware that there is the potential for teacher walk-outs across Arizona. No decision or date has been set by the organizers, but as a district we are working to determine the impact on school operations. In the event of a work stoppage, we would more than likely close the schools and do everything we can to provide you with advanced notice. We will use our ConnectEd notification system to get information to you. Please make sure that your phone numbers and email address are current in our student information system.
We are fortunate to have a community that consistently supports our schools. We appreciate our dedicated employees who continue to focus on meeting the needs of our students. And we appreciate all of you and your support of our schools while these statewide actions are under way.
Dr. Tracey Lopeman and Superintendent’s Cabinet”

Stay with and check in with our social media for updates on the walk-out vote.

Turner Stanek, 15, went after his own state records. Submitted photo

A Maricopa teenager raised the bar during his first power lifting competition last year and is building on his reputation this year.

Turner Stanek, 15, broke state records in the back squat (352 pounds), deadlift (435 pounds) and bench press (198 pounds) at the USA Powerlifting Apeman Strong Fest in Phoenix Sept. 23.

“This is all new to him and it’s pretty awesome,” said Stanek’s mother, Danica.

Last Sunday at the USA Powerlifting Arizona 2018 State Championship, the Mountain Pointe sophomore beat his own records in back squat and deadlift and maintained his previous holding in the bench press category.

He’s now qualified to participate in the 2018 USA Powerlifting Raw Nationals this October in Spokane, Washington.

Turner’s passion for the sport began with encouragement and training from friends and staff at Maricopa CrossFit.

“It’s astonishing because two years ago today I wouldn’t have thought I would hold three records or that I could back squat 402 pounds,” Turner said.

The process produced a physical and mental metamorphosis.

Turner gained muscle and lost pounds with cross fit and powerlifting competitions.

“He has literally gone from kind of a chubby adolescent to looking like a 25-year-old man,” said Danica Stanek. “It’s crazy.”

The once introverted teen also increased his confidence and has since broadened his social horizons by joining clubs at school and encouraging others to accomplish their own fitness goals.

Work inside the gym taught Turner to deal with his emotions.

“I can put all that anger into the bar and take it out on the bar because that’s all the bar wants me to do,” Turner said.

He plans to compete in regional competitions this summer ahead of the national event in September.

Stanek said he wants to be a well-known powerlifter and help others with their fitness ambitions.

“It’s a great feeling what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it as much as you do for powerlifting,” Turner said.

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Superintendent Tracey Lopeman. Photo by Michelle Chance

Tracey Lopeman is officially Maricopa Unified School District’s new superintendent.

The MUSD Governing Board unanimously approved a three-year contract Monday. Lopeman will receive $140,000 per year and begin contract work July 1.

The contract ends June 30, 2021.

Lopeman’s superintendent contract includes health insurance, car and cell phone allowances, a retirement plan, performance pay and vacation days.

Until July, Lopeman will work part-time as a superintendent consultant for MUSD while she finishes her duties as assistant superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District.

The board approved Monday afternoon up to a $20,000 payment for Lopeman’s 2.5 months of consultant work from now until July 1.

Board President AnnaMarie Knorr said the decision to hire Lopeman part-time until the fiscal year begins will allow the new superintendent to be involved in cabinet meetings and budget discussions.

“It’s not a set amount; it’s up to $20,000,” Knorr said regarding Lopeman’s consulting contract. “So, because of state procurement laws, typically when it could be up to a certain amount, we have to go up to bid, but in the case where it’s something like this – it’s a sole source because there is nobody else that we want.”

Knorr said consultant payment will be calculated by the hour. The Board had no estimate how many hours Lopeman will contribute or a ballpark total for what Lopeman will eventually receive.

Wednesday concludes the Board’s ambitious superintendent search timeline originally approved in December.

The effort was spearheaded by former President Patti Coutré before Knorr took the reins.

It’s considered the first major accomplishment for Knorr in her new leadership role.

“I’m excited for the future and bringing her on board. I’ve enjoyed every step of the process – it’s been extremely time consuming, but well worth it,” Knorr said.

Lopeman was present during the board’s announcement and said she is excited to work with “a great board and a great community.”

The new district figurehead’s initial impression of her new job reflects its slogan.

“Like the (MUSD) motto says, ‘a community dedicated to success,’” Lopeman said. “Every person that I’ve met has a purpose here and it’s clear.”

The board meets again for a regular meeting at the district administration building April 25 at 6:30 p.m.

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Gov. Doug Ducey

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced Thursday afternoon his proposal to increase teacher pay by 20 percent by fall 2020.

The announcement comes the day after a statewide teacher walk-in.

“I’ve been listening, and I’ve been impressed,” Ducey said during a press conference April 12.

The pay increase figure aligns with Arizona Educators United pay-increase demand, albeit over a period of two years. The increase includes the 1-percent increase paid to teachers in 2017.

Ducey projected the average teacher salary in two years will be $58,130.

The plan first needs to be passed in the state Legislature’s budget session, which is expected to end in the coming days.

If approved, teachers would receive a gradual pay increase:

  • 2017: 1 percent increase
  • 2018: 9 percent increase
  • 2019: 5 percent increase
  • 2020: 5 percent increase

Additionally, Ducey proposed $371 million for Arizona school districts’ “most pressing needs,” including: infrastructure, curriculum, school buses and technology.

“We can do this and do it in a responsible and sustainable way,” Ducey said. “As a result of Arizona’s thriving economy and Arizona’s record population of 7 million residents, our state revenues are on the rise. With a reduction in state government operating budgets, strategic efficiencies, case load savings and a roll-back of some of the Governor’s Office proposals of fiscal year 19 executive budget, more dollars are available to invest into two of Arizona’s most important priorities: Arizona’s teachers and Arizona’s classrooms.” 

Maricopa Unified School District teachers wore red to address the school board Wednesday night. Not all were on board with Gov. Doug Ducey’s Thursday proposal. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Maricopa Unified School District Board Member Patti Coutré called the move “a step in the right direction.”

“I just want to know more details,” Coutré added. “You know what they say, ‘the devil’s in the details.’”

Maybe I’m an optimist but I’m hopeful,” said Allie Krigbaum, a second grade teacher at Butterfield Elementary. “I feel like the #RedforEd movement made a difference and that Ducey was able to see communities come together in support of teachers and kids. I feel hopeful that he means what he says.”

Not all local teachers were convinced.

MUSD Technology Integration Specialist Christine Dickinson said she applauded the state’s decision to take action, but it failed overall to address the movement’s demands.

“I am concerned that this action puts a Band-Aid on the teacher-pay issue and opens wounds elsewhere,” Dickinson said.

Many, like Dickinson, viewed the announcement as addressing only a portion of demands from the Arizona Educators United coalition.

“It misses the point of this entire movement,” said Maricopa High School English teacher Becky Gaul. “Teacher raises were just one part of the much larger picture. Where’s the money for our support staff?”

In addition to salary increases, teachers want to see competitive pay for support professionals, permanent teacher salary structure with annual raises, a restoration of education funding to 2008 levels and no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

Janean Jump teaches fourth grade at Saddleback Elementary. She fears Ducey’s proposal could strangle AEU’s efforts to raise salaries for support staff.

“Right now, we are almost backed into a corner with this. If we stop our movement because we received the raises, we will leave out those who are in just as much need as teachers. Pushing forward with our movement after this announcement will allow us to be painted as greedy and not satisfied with our raise, when, in reality, that was only one of our five demands.”

AEU leads the #RedforEd movement, and coalition leaders announced earlier this week a possible walk-out event could be a possibility.

“I say keep fighting. We will still be behind,” said Sue Swanno, a teacher at Saddleback Elementary.

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Firefighters in Maricopa Fire/Medical Department’s Ladder 571 assisted local veterans April 10 with a very tall order. John Anderson, director of American Legion Riders Bernie G. Crouse Post 133, said firefighters replaced a worn cable that anchors the American flag to a pole outside the center. Old Glory is the centerpiece for numerous flag-raising ceremonies at the vet center every year. The next is scheduled for May 1.

Joshua Paulsen (left) and County Attorney Kent Volkmer present Tyler Pappas with an award during Crime Victims Rights Week. Photo by Michelle Chance

Tyler Pappas grew up admiring his grandfather’s career in law enforcement and consumed his stories of comradery and bravery.

“It kind of stuck with me,” he said.

Pappas, now 26 years old, recently concluded his first year as an officer with the Maricopa Police Department.

His rookie year on the force has not gone without notice. In fact, it’s being celebrated.

Pappas was one of 11 law enforcement personnel recognized by the Pinal County Attorney’s Office April 10 at the National Crime Victims’ Rights Week Law Enforcement Appreciation event.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is April 8-14.

“He definitely has an extra something special,” said Mary Witkofski, MPD Community Programs Manager.

Witkofski presented an award to Pappas for his compassionate behavior toward crime victims.

Pappas regularly stops by MPD’s victim services unit to fill a bag with stuffed animals and care items for adolescent crime victims, Witkofski told a room filled with county officers, prosecutors and Sheriff Mark Lamb.

The acts of kindness are something Pappas learned from a Chandler Police officer who comforted him as a child when he was exposed to his father’s alleged abusive behavior toward his mother.

Tyler Pappas. Photo by Michelle Chance

“Seeing that growing up gives me an edge and an insight on how to deal with other people that have been in my shoes,” Pappas said after the ceremony.

The officer who helped Pappas as a child left a lasting impression.

“(Pappas) is paying the acts forward from what he received as a child, and that’s so inspirational,” Witkofski said.

The young lawman is already excelling in his career in ways beyond his recent accolade.

Pappas said he recently made MPD’s Special Response Team.

He encourages crime victims who may be weary of law enforcement to give officers a chance.

“Reach out to us and let us show our true heart and our true side,” Pappas said. “Yes, we wear the uniform, but we’re human as well. We all go through stuff in life.”

Mary Witkofski. Photo by Michelle Chance

Maricopa Wells Middle School. Photo by Mason Callejas

The movement to increase teacher pay and improve education for Arizona students continued April 11.

Teachers participated in walk-ins at eight schools in the Maricopa Unified School District.

Hundreds of teachers, parents, students and community members held homemade signs and marched along busy sidewalks closest to campus.

The protests typically lasted 30 minutes. Afterward, teachers entered their classrooms upon contract time. However, today’s statewide demonstration that did not disrupt the school day could evolve in the coming weeks.

Coalition leaders with Arizona Educators United prepped Arizona teachers for an impending walk-out in a video posted to Facebook April 9. AEU is expected to announce a walk-out date later this week or next.

“If your district does not have the superintendent support or the school board’s support, you may not be ready for a walk out,” warned Derek Harris in the video.

School administration and MUSD School Board members attended the walk-ins Wednesday and largely voiced their support of the walk-in demonstrations and increased state-funding.

However, Board Member Torri Anderson could not comment on what the board’s position could be if MUSD teachers decide to strike.

Anderson said a discussion between the board would need to take place along with its attorney before their stance could be announced.

“We’ll see what the next step is, but our teachers and our students deserve a world-class education so it’s time for the state to support that and really do what’s best for our students,” Anderson added.

Many frustrated teachers targeted Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey during the demonstrations and indicated support for the impending walk-out.

“If nobody will listen – and nobody that has the power to make change is willing to do that – if that’s the next step, I will do what needs to be done to make change,” said Shelly Fisher, a second grade teacher at Pima Butte Elementary. “But my students and my families come first – so my first job would be to take care of them, and if we can do this and still take care of them, then I would absolutely support (a walk-out).”

Santa Cruz Elementary faculty participated by wearing their #RedForEd shirts. Submitted photo

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A sea of red may be visible at local campuses tomorrow morning as parents drop their children off in the Maricopa Unified School District.

Teachers at seven campuses will participate in #RedForEd demonstrations before school begins. At contract time, teachers will walk through the front doors together.

Most demonstrations are scheduled to last 30 minutes.

The movement is led by Arizona Educators United and teachers around the state will be participating. Read their demands here.

Organizers said community members, parents and students can participate.

MUSD School Walk-ins:

  • Butterfield Elementary: 7 a.m.
  • Maricopa Elementary: 7:05 a.m.
  • Saddleback Elementary: 7:10 a.m.
  • Santa Rosa Elementary: 7:30 a.m.
  • Pima Butte Elementary: 7:30 a.m.
  • Maricopa Wells Middle School: 8 a.m.
  • Maricopa High School: 6:30 a.m.
  • Desert Wind Middle School

Bernadette Russoniello spent 17 years i the classroom before becoming the College and Career coordinator at MHS. Photo by Mason Callejas


Celebrated educator Bernadette Russoniello left the classroom at the height of her teaching career.

She didn’t leave education, however.

The consecutive Teacher of the Year awards presented to Russoniello in 2016 and 2017 were evidence to the recipient it was time to learn something new.

“I like to say I’m an ‘edupreneur’ because I’m constantly recreating what I do and doing it so I can help students,” Russoniello said.

After 17 years as a high school teacher, Russoniello transitioned to a new position as Maricopa High School’s College and Career Coordinator. Russoniello works alongside the school’s guidance counseling team to provide students with resources and opportunities for life beyond high school.

She also presents workshops to teachers districtwide in an effort to prompt the conversation of post-high school planning that, for Russoniello, would ideally begin in kindergarten.  Most recently, Russoniello organized a college fair at MHS with representatives from 20 universities, community colleges, trade schools and the military.

Inside the school library, students also have access to the College and Career Center, which Russoniello described as a “space for culture and planning.”

“It’s funny because it’s what I did in the classroom as well; I help kids,” Russoniello said of her new responsibilities.

But instead of 150 students a day, Russoniello now meets with the entire student body.

Her previous marketing students said she has always encouraged their future goals through conversations about career exploration.

Bernadette Russoniello. Photo by Mason Callejas

“It was because of her that I now know what I want to do with my life and how I learned to make the best out of every situation thrown at me,” said senior Harrison Edmondson.

Russoniello assisted 17-year-old Fides Bernales in declaring a college major and learning the first steps toward applying for a community college scholarship.

“You can tell her true passion is teaching and helping students find that path that was meant for them,” Bernales said. “Her dedication is one of the things I admire about her.”

Russoniello exhibited innovation in her career long before her evolution from the classroom to the front office.

In 2001, she began at Maricopa Unified School District as a first-year English teacher. Later, she taughtdifferent grade levels and subjects including government, yearbook and marketing. Russoniello introduced AP programs and sponsored student clubs and organizations, including student council, LINK crew and DECA – earning two Master of Education degrees in the process.

“I feel I always went through these reiterations as a teacher because I love learning,” Russoniello said.

Like Russoniello, her husband Michael began his career at Maricopa Unified School District and both are leaders at their schools. Michael is a teacher on special assignment (TOSA) at Santa Cruz Elementary and is a 15-year veteran of MUSD.

They have four children and explore national parks when school is out.

Professional growth within districts is a standard and celebrated practice – often taking award-winning teachers away from the day-to-day dealings of a classroom.

Russoniello said her vacant classroom is just another opportunity for the next generation of educators.

“I don’t worry,” Russoniello said. “When there are more opportunities to grow and be involved, then more people will flourish.”

This story appears in the April issue of InMaricopa.


Kathryn Sinkevitch will be tried for the murder of her former boyfriend. PCSO photo

Michael Agerter’s accused murderer will face a 12-person jury trial after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Michael Agerter

The four-week trial will begin Nov. 27 and is expected to end just four days before Christmas.

Pinal County Judge Kevin White vacated the original spring trial for defendant Kathryn Sinkevitch last month to accommodate defense attorney Bret Huggins’ slammed trial load.

White expressed concern in court April 9 that the new trial may run long and overlap into the busy Christmas week. He told Huggins and prosecutor Shawn Jensvold he may add Mondays to the trial schedule to prevent that situation.

If that decision is made, it’s unclear whether the inaugural day of trial would be moved to Nov. 26.

White also asked lawyers on both sides if a settlement conference had taken place. The goal of these sessions is to resolve the case without trial.

Huggins said one hadn’t occurred and later agreed with Jensvold’s comment that it likely “would not be fruitful.”

The day before the last week of trial begins will mark the second anniversary of Agerter’s murder. The victim was shot to death in the garage of his Rancho El Dorado home Dec. 16, 2016.

Monday’s successful trial date setting was not without a violation of courtroom etiquette.

A bailiff admonished a woman for waving and repeatedly calling the suspect’s name from the gallery as Sinkevitch walked shackled to a holding cell at the conclusion of the hearing.

Sinkevitch will return to White’s courtroom July 16 at 1:30 p.m. for a status review conference ahead of trial.

Photo by Michelle Chance

Live music boomed under the blazing sun at the Maricopa Music Fest last weekend. It’s the second event hosted by Founder Chrystal Allen-O’Jon after the inaugural fest four years ago. The lineup spanned genres from indie, rock and reggae to rap. Entertainment ran from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Copper Sky.

See photos at 


Teachers are upping the ante in a statewide campaign to increase pay and improve education for their students.

“Walk-ins” are slated to occur at schools in the Maricopa Unified School District April 11.

Teachers will meet in front of campus 30 minutes before they’re contracted to begin the day. (Read below to see the times at each school). Some will carry signs, and most will be wearing red. All will walk into the school together before school begins.

The #RedForEd movement began in early March in Arizona. Teachers wore red to school as a show of solidarity.

But now Arizona Educators United (AEU) — the coalition of teachers, administrators and support staff who support the movement – are strategizing ways to force the hand of legislators, and most importantly, their governor.

“(Gov. Doug) Ducey needs to do something,” said one MUSD teacher April 5.

A group of around 25 crimson-clad teachers met inside a classroom after school at Santa Rosa Elementary this week to schedule the walk-ins, discuss goals and, at times, voice their frustrations.

Arizona public school teachers are among the lowest-paid in the nation and all eyes are on other states, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, who have protested their own working conditions and low wages with some success.

Teachers in some schools in the Valley walked out for one day last month, but Arizona educators teach in a right-to-work state, and many realize the risk a strike could bring them.

“It will take unity like you’ve never seen before,” warned MUSD Volunteer Coordinator Jim Irving. “You’re fooling yourself if you think some can (strike) and some can’t.”

Some local teachers said they’d be on board and viewed walk-ins as a way for the AEU to measure the movement’s manpower in case demands aren’t met.

AEU demands:

  • 20 percent salary increase for teachers to create competitive pay with neighboring states
  • Competitive pay for all education support professionals
  • Permanent teacher salary structure which includes annual raises
  • Restore education funding to 2008 levels
  • No new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average

AEU encourages parents, community members and students to support teachers April 11.

However, AEU advises teachers against speaking to the community during school hours about the event. Teachers also cannot communicate details about the walk-in via their district email.

Representation from each MUSD school site was not present at the walk-in meeting this week, so the April 11 events cannot currently be confirmed at every school.

If you are a parent or community member, please contact your school administration to confirm whether your child’s campus is participating.

Maricopa High School and Maricopa Wells Middle School are confirmed to be participating so far.

MUSD School Walk-ins:

  • Butterfield Elementary: 7 a.m.
  • Maricopa Elementary: 7:05 a.m.
  • Saddleback Elementary: 7:10 a.m.
  • Santa Rosa Elementary: 7:30 a.m.
  • Pima Butte Elementary: 7:30 a.m.
  • Maricopa Wells Middle School: 8 a.m.
  • Maricopa High School: 6:30 a.m

Representatives from Santa Cruz Elementary and Desert Wind Middle School have not indicated whether they will participate.

Different MCE outcome could have impacted decision

Terri Crain. Photo by Mason Callejas

Maricopa Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Terri Crain announced Friday she will soon leave the organization.

Crain is slated to become the Chief Operating Officer of her cousin’s event lighting and sound business based in Tempe. Crain said she will remain a resident of Maricopa and retain her recent appointment on the Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee to the Pinal County Regional Transportation Authority.

The Chamber will hold onto its president part-time until at least mid-May, or until it can find a person to fill the position.

Crain, in her official capacity as Chamber president, bid to operate Maricopa Center for Entrepreneurship last year.

The city council didn’t take the chamber up on its offer. However, Crain said if the deal could have been struck, she’d likely stick with the Chamber.

“I guess the conversation with my cousin would have been different,” Crain said. “I absolutely would have still found a way to help my cousin, but maybe not on such a full-time level.”

Crain’s announcement comes just shy of her first anniversary of re-joining the Chamber. The Board announced it hired Crain April 18, 2017, after former Executive Director Sara Troyer resigned.

Before that, Crain previously ran the chamber in 2006 and left under controversial circumstances in 2011.

In a news release, Crain said the decision to leave the chamber did not come easily.

“I have a passion for Maricopa and the Chamber, and Chamber work in general,” Crain said, citing her new opportunity to help her cousin’s business grow as the reason for her departure. “The Chamber Board has been very supportive and open to new ideas. I want to thank you for the opportunity and faith you extended to me in my transition back to Maricopa.”

It’s unclear when and how the search for Crain’s replacement will begin.

Chamber Board President Chris Cahall could not immediately be reached for comment on this story.

Photo by Michelle Chance

By Michelle Chance

Around 8,000 school buses are inspected by the Arizona Department of Public Safety every year. Inspectors discover minor and sometimes major defects.

In 2017, nearly half of Maricopa Unified School District’s fleet had major violations, according to DPS documents and the Arizona Administrative Code.

Capt. Brian Preston, who oversees commercial vehicle enforcement with DPS, said if school district transportation departments cannot repair the defect while the inspector is on-scene, the bus is not allowed on the road.

What is considered a major defect is wide-ranging, however, from quick fixes like decals for emergency exits to mechanically intensive repairs of the suspension or engine.

“There are things that will shut a bus down that will not shut your personal car down,” Preston said, adding school buses are held to a higher safety standard.

But between 2014-17, many of the violations included defects such as inoperative brakes, exit doors, lamps and alarms – and defects in tires, seats and suspensions.

2017 a difficult year in the bus barn

Last year’s inspection of MUSD’s 37 buses included 17 that qualified for out-of-service violations, eight buses with no violations and 12 marked with minor violations.

Preston said the state average for out-of-service school buses at any given district fleet is 30 to 35 percent. Last year, 48 percent of MUSD’s fleet was tagged with major defects.

“Obviously, that’s higher than what we generally have as a state average,” Preston said.

MUSD Transportation Department Director Sergio Pulido said staff shortage was partly to blame. Two shop mechanics were out with major surgeries for a period of time, leaving one mechanic in the garage to handle regular maintenance of the fleet.

Pulido and former Director Fred Laguna also pitched in at the garage while they prepared for a change in leadership.

“I had to do my job, and then I was learning to do his job because he was retiring,” Pulido said.

2017 was a year of transition for the transportation department that has for years dealt with an industry accustomed to a shortage of school bus driving staff.

This school year, Pulido’s two mechanics have returned to the garage.

MUSD Human Resources Director Tom Beckett said the department also hired a shop foreman. Pulido believes the additional mechanical muscle at the bus barn will lead to better inspections.

Newer equipment would help too, Pulido said.

Aging fleet

The average age of an MUSD bus is 10 to 15 years old. The oldest, No. 36, was made in 2001.

But persuading district administration to replace an entire fleet is difficult given MUSD may have to build additional school sites to support growing enrollment, among other expenses.

The district typically purchases one used bus per year. In March, the transportation department received a large, 84-passenger bus. Pulido said one bus a year is not enough.

“It’s frustrating because you want to run a good fleet, you want your people to stay and you want to make your people happy,” Pulido said.

Last year’s violations are not new to the district. According to DPS documents, MUSD’s aging fleet received major violations above the state average in 2016 (39 percent) and 2014 (48 percent). MUSD was below the mark in 2015 with 28 percent.

Those data don’t mean nearly half of the fleet was taken off the road.

Quick repairs

DPS inspection reports indicate much of the major defects were repaired during inspections. A DPS trooper typically spends two to three days inspecting a fleet.

Troopers tag buses that have passed inspection with a sticker displaying the current year.

Buses are usually shut-down when the transportation department is short the parts needed to make the repair during inspection, Pulido said.

In that case, Pulido said the department consolidates and reassigns routes to other buses until the repair is made and a re-inspection can be scheduled with DPS. Combined routes often mean up to a 30-minute wait for school children – and myriad complaints from parents.

Pulido said he does not put an out-of-service bus on the road, even if the proper repairs have been made prior to re-inspection.

“The safety of the students, the safety of the driver and the liability of the district – you don’t ever want to put that in jeopardy,” Pulido said.

School administrators and employees who violate state statute concerning school buses are “guilty of misconduct and subject to removal from office or employment.” To enforce such misconduct, an informed person would need to report the allegation.

“DPS would investigate, contact the district, and the district would comply,” Preston said.

Preston said DPS has received reports that other districts allegedly operate buses that have failed inspection, but investigations rarely lead to disciplinary action because district administrators said they were unaware, or it was simply a mistake.

“In the past we prepared for these kind of things: cease-and-desist orders and potential for whatever type of sanction that could come, but it’s never come to that point,” Preston said.

MUSD’s next round of inspections is expected this fall.

This story appears in the April issue of InMaricopa.

After a young boy went missing from a babysitter's home on Michaels Drive, MPD forwarded charges.

Olivia Merolli, the unlicensed daycare provider who admits to losing a 2-year-old from her home in February, could face legal trouble.

The Maricopa Police Department forwarded one charge of “child or vulnerable adult abuse” against Merolli to the Pinal County Attorney’s Office after the investigation ended in March.

If PCAO pursues the recommendation, Merolli could face a minimum of 2.5 years behind bars if convicted of the class 3 felony for recklessly endangering the health or welfare of a child.

Additionally, MPD submitted its investigation into Merolli’s in-home daycare operation to Arizona Department of Health Services, the agency that regulates childcare facilities.

The police investigation alleges Merolli told officers she was caring for 14 children, ranging from 9 months old to 4 years old, in her Rancho El Dorado home the day the child went missing for two hours on Feb. 20.

A childcare provider supervising five children or more must be licensed by the state.

The MPD report alleges Merolli said “she already knew she wasn’t supposed to have 14 children at her residence, but she didn’t attempt to hide that (from officers).”

As previously reported, Merolli said she wasn’t aware the 2-year-old boy was gone from the home until his father arrived to pick him up. She could not be reached for comment on this story.

The report said landscapers found the child 0.2 miles from Merolli’s home – an estimated 3-minute walk.

Steven Ross, the boy’s father, said he and his girlfriend will pursue civil damages against Merolli.

“We’re also going to be pursuing a lawsuit for emotional distress and pain and suffering and anything else we can,” Ross said.

Merolli allegedly told officers during the investigation that her other clients were aware the child had gone missing while under her care, but they “will continue to use her services.”

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Maricopa Fire and Medical responded to a near-drowning Rancho Monday. The child was revived and transported to Cardon Children's Hospital in Mesa. Photo by Mason Callejas

First responders transported a six-year-old to the hospital Monday after he was found unresponsive in a pool.

The boy was discovered not breathing in a residential pool around noon near the 22300 block of Balboa Drive in Rancho El Dorado, said Maricopa Police Department spokesman Ricardo Alvarado.

The boy allegedly jumped into the pool without a flotation device while his father was turned “opening a poolside umbrella,” Alvarado said.

“The child was in the water for seconds,” he added.

Alvarado said he could not confirm if the child was actually not breathing when the call was placed, though the child was responsive when Maricopa Fire and Medical arrived minutes later.

He was transported to Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa, Alvarado said.

MPD is continuing to investigate the incident.

This is a developing story.


Reporter Mason Callejas contributed to this story.

Photo by Michelle Chance

Hundreds of egg hunters attended the 14th annual Easter Egg Hunt on the lawn outside UltraStar Multi-tainment Center Saturday. The free event is hosted by Community of Hope Church and featured pictures with the Easter Bunny, bounce houses and inflatable slides, and music.

Jack Williams (left) and Cianni Burgos (right) spoke to the MUSD board about their experience in Ram Academy, run by MHS Vice Principal Steve Ybarra. Photos by Michelle Chance

Cianni Burgos dropped out of high school her senior year to care for her newborn daughter. Jack Williams encountered road blocks and was losing hope of graduating high school.

Both were among the first students in Maricopa High School’s Ram Academy – a credit recovery program for juniors and seniors.

“I was at a point in my life where I felt like there wasn’t much room to go, and when I heard about Ram Academy I felt like that was my opportunity to get somewhere in life,” Williams said during a presentation to the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board this week.

Williams recently graduated, and Burgos will complete her final high school credit in May.

Teachers make the program

The school-within-a-school at MHS opened in August 2017 and has since graduated 12 students previously at-risk of never receiving a diploma.

Unsurprisingly, the school is an alternative from the traditional campus in many ways.

At a maximum 125-student capacity, Ram Academy sticks to a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

The small staff bring with them big experience, according to the school’s administrator, Assistant Principal Steve Ybarra.

“It is a team effort, and teachers make the program,” Ybarra said.

The five “master teachers” are highly qualified instructors in their individual subjects, Ybarra said. Two of them are former principals, and another has experience in guidance counseling.

Recruitment of the teaching dream team began last summer.

“I told them in the interview(s), ‘I’m not going to question what you teach, I just want you to make connections with kids,” Ybarra said. “That’s the key. Making those connections,” Ybarra said.

Math teacher Reid Martin is a former principal who moved from Kansas to teach math at Ram Academy. His wife is a teacher at MHS.

He’s been tasked with incorporating the district’s new math curriculum into the program’s accelerated schedule – while in its inaugural year of operation.

Despite the challenges, Martin said the students are thriving under the one-on-one attention from staff.

“We teach kids how to advocate for themselves in a way that is really applicable,” Martin said. “The relationships that the kids have in Ram Academy, they walk into an environment that is completely different than our high school. The culture that is being created inside Ram Academy is really unique.”

Students get second chance

Life outside of the classroom for many Ram Academy students threatened their ability to obtain a high school degree.

Fifth-year seniors – students who dropped out senior year and have returned – are among Ram Academy’s most successful participants.

“At the start of my original senior year, I was having my daughter. She’s now one and a half years old,” Burgos told the governing board March 28.

The young mother said she nearly lost the drive to pursue a diploma. But then she enrolled in Ram Academy.

She found small class sizes and thoughtful guidance when selecting courses.

“I have a personal connection with every teacher I have, (and it) makes me so much more motivated to graduate,” she said.

Her name and photo will soon be displayed on the school’s wall of fame – an encouraging tribute to Ram Academy’s graduates.

A face already featured on the walls is Williams’.

“I’m proud to say I’m a graduate and I’m expecting a son in the upcoming month, so everything is falling in place,” Williams said.

A few of the academy’s students come from the foster care system. One, Ybarra explained, was a 17-year-old student who had no high school credits.

Another student aged out of the foster system and was displaced from Maricopa.

“The family didn’t want her anymore because they weren’t going to get payment, and so she ended up going to a group home on the west side,” Ybarra said.

For three weeks, the group home funded a taxi to and from Maricopa to allow the student to graduate, according to Ybarra.

“There was no way she would be able to start new someplace else and get any credit,” he said.

Twelve additional students are expected to graduate by the end of the school-year.

Higher-education challenges

As the projected graduation rate at the academy grows, the program failed in its first year to promote college enrollment.

Ybarra said attempts to schedule university tours for Ram Academy students this school year were unsuccessful. However, he said, military representatives have visited the school.

The academy also encouraged students to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and the ACT standardized admissions test.

He said the program hopes to coordinate with MHS Career and College Coordinator Bernadette Russoniello in the future to better promote post-high school education.

Expansion in program’s future

Ram Academy operates in a few existing CTE classrooms and a modular building on the northside of campus. Ybarra said the limited space is adequate for the program’s small capacity – which he attributes to some of its success.

However, Board Member Torri Anderson expressed her desire to see the program grow.

In the future, Anderson said Ram Academy would ideally enroll freshmen and sophomores identified as being at-risk of becoming credit deficient.

Ybarra said the program would embrace growth in enrollment, so long as Ram Academy could find a larger house of learning.

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No students were seriously injured after two Maricopa High School buses collided in a minor accident Thursday afternoon, school authorities said. One of the bus drivers was reportedly taken to a hospital, however.

“One bus ran into the back of the second bus while crossing the railroad tracks on southbound (State Route) 347,” said Tom Beckett, Maricopa Unified School District Human Resources director, who oversees the Transportation Department.

Beckett said the district sent the district’s Health Services director, Marilyn Wyant, to the scene for precaution. Two students reported to the nurse’s office with minor head injuries afterward, Beckett said.

Police were also at the accident scene.

“One of the bus drivers was transported to the hospital with minor pain related to the collision,” said Detective Daniel Rauch of Maricopa Police Department. “All vehicles were moved from the roadway prior to first responders arriving, causing minimal traffic delays.”

The buses, No. 69 and No. 70, were returning to Maricopa from a field trip at the Signal Peak Campus at Central Arizona College. Each bus was carrying about 30 students.

The incident will delay regular afternoon transportation routes three and 13.

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Brett Zimmerman prepares for training in Rancho El Dorado.


Navy veteran Lt. Brett Zimmerman left Hawaii and sold most of his belongings after his time in the military last year.

It was his goal to live a simpler life, one without clutter to anchor him.

“Life’s too short and I realized that when I was in the Navy and on a submarine — sometimes it gets pretty dark,” said the 30-year-old North Dakota native. “You’re under water for months at a time and you look back and think what am I doing? And what do I want to do with my life?”

The answer to that question soon became clear.

Zimmerman is an avid cyclist, runner and swimmer. Since his senior year at Oregon State University, he’s found freedom in triathlon races.

“I’ve found something that I love wholeheartedly, and I just want to go out there and do the best that I possibly can,” Zimmerman said.

It’s his goal to become a professional triathlete.

Zimmerman’s family winters in Maricopa every year. He spent the better part of this season strength-training and swimming at Copper Sky as well as cycling and running in Rancho El Dorado.

He’s also been modifying a 2005 Dodge Sprinter for a life-changing road trip.

The tour will feature stops in the Midwest and as far as the East Coast as Zimmerman chases down his dream.

The ambition was first born from his late coach Jason Kilderry, who passed away last year.

“I wanted to find a purpose and a meaning in life and he just said, ‘You have an opportunity right now to go out there and just take life by the horns,’” Zimmerman said Kilderry told him.

To live minimally, he enlisted the help of his father Rodney and their neighbor Jim Pfeifle to transform the van into a home-on-wheels.

“It’s gratifying,” said Pfeifle, who worked in construction and contributed much of the woodwork to the van’s interior.

The van is DC-powered with running water, a small refrigerator, a propane stove, a full-size bed and a composting toilet.

‘Ruby’ the van – named after Zimmerman’s July birthstone – will transport the triathlete through at least November when his last race of the year takes place in Miami.

If Zimmerman goes pro, he will travel abroad to races in Europe.

“I’m really excited about what’s about to happen it’s going to be a wild couple of years,” Zimmerman said.

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Tracey Lopeman, Ed.D.

The Maricopa Unified School District unanimously voted to enter into contract negotiations with its top pick for superintendent Wednesday.

The governing board met in executive session after its regular meeting March 28 to delegate the negotiation process among its finalist, the board’s attorney and Board President AnnaMarie Knorr.

MUSD’s board voted March 26 to offer a contract to Tracey Lopeman, one of three finalists in the district’s superintendent search.

The board and Lopeman are expected to deliberate an annual salary range between $135,000-$155,000.

Human Resources Director Tom Beckett said the board can offer Lopeman up to a three-year contract with health insurance, disability insurance as well as possible car and cell phone allowances and other terms.

The board previously stated it would prefer to officially hire a new superintendent by April.

If a contract is accepted, Lopeman will replace former Superintendent Steve Chestnut, who left MUSD for a position at Scottsdale Unified School District early this month.

Beckett said the board has indicated it would like to have Lopeman on-the-job as soon as possible. Lopeman is assistant superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix. The board’s last salary negotiation with Chestnut occurred in 2015 at a $137,000 price tag.

Alongside contract negotiations, MUSD is also considering the adoption of K-12 English-Language Arts curriculum.

A presentation by Curriculum Director Wade Watson showed a majority of teachers in the district who piloted three anonymous curriculum vendors in their classrooms preferred the most expensive package: $1.7 million.

The board might take action on future ELA curriculum during its next meeting.

The district approved district-wide math curriculum last year for more than $1 million.

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Photo by Michelle Chance

Maricopa’s newest athletic gym officially opened Tuesday. Planet Fitness, 20595 N. John Wayne Parkway, Suite 400, is open and staffed 24 hours a day. City leaders and the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting ceremony March 27. Planet Fitness is the second tenant to open at the Edison Pointe retail development this month.

Who will be MUSD's next superintendent? Tracey Lopeman, Cort Monroe and Heather Cruz are finalists for the job.

Interested in meeting candidates for Maricopa Unified School District’s new superintendent?

What: Superintendent Candidates Forum
When: March 26, 7 p.m.
Where: Maricopa Unified School District Administration Office, 44150 W. Maricopa-Casa Grande Hwy.

The three finalists will take questions from the public March 26 at 7 p.m. at the district administration office, 44150 W. Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway.

The MUSD governing board selected Heather Cruz, Tracey Lopeman and Cort Monroe from a pool of 30 applicants. To learn more about the candidates click here.

Arizona School Board Association Representative Karen Gasket will moderate the hour-long Q&A session.

Gasket has assisted MUSD in its search for a new leader since November.

After the panel takes questions, attendees can interact with the finalists during an “informal” social portion of the forum.

MUSD will also accept comment cards from the public regarding the candidates to be considered by the governing board during deliberations.

Those discussions will begin in executive session at 8:45 that evening. Afterward, MUSD’s top-pick will be announced publicly at the administration office. Contract negotiations are slated to begin in the following days.


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Homestead construction


As construction on residential housing ramps up in Maricopa, the city is considering ways to make the process easier for developers.

Last year the city received 500 residential building permits, and recent projections predict major growth ahead.

During a city council work session March 20, the Development Services Department presented the city’s current procedure: An eight-application process that usually entails two years of meetings and sub-steps before a builder receives a building permit.

A team of planners began brainstorming how to consolidate timewasting steps and documents about a year ago.

The result was a color-coded flow chart that details the city’s process used since pre-recession Maricopa as well as updated steps the department has identified and streamlined.

Development Services Director Martin Scribner said even with improvements, development processes are inherently complex across the nation.

“As a rule, the process is complicated,” Scribner said.

The process is detailed in a digital timeline that essentially serves as a snapshot of what developers could expect during the pre-development stages.

Some of the department’s major consolidation in the process affected the construction and inspection portion of the process.

SMARTGov, the city’s digital terminal for permit viewing and submittal, is a big part of that, according to Senior Planner Rodolfo Lopez.

“(Developers) don’t have to resubmit some of those documents unless something is changed or modified,” Lopez said. “This process streamlines it a lot quicker.”

The city has been teasing a redesign of its website and Mayor Christian Price indicated he’d like to see the process timeline posted on the city’s digital front page once the online update is completed.

Development Services is expected to compose a similar timeline for commercial development, which entails an even more complicated process.

Vice Mayor Peggy Chapados said the digital flow chart could decrease the number of complaints the city receives from commercial builders regarding perceived delays in the process.

The commercial development presentation is expected sometime in the future.

“The more information we get out there, the better,” Price said.


Dirt is being moved on the lot of a future Burger King at Edison Pointe.

Hundreds of people lined the new sidewalks of Edison Pointe’s first retail grand opening last week as Goodwill opened its doors March 16. The event drew two Maricopa High School students who decided to spend one night of their spring break camping at the used-retail shop’s front doors. Other tenants slated to open this month include Planet Fitness and Ross Dress for Less. Project Manager John Scholl confirmed Monday Dollar Tree is one of Edison Pointe’s newest retail stores.

Dunkin Donuts, Wingstop, a nail salon and other tenants could open on the westside of the development in late spring. This summer, Burger King is projected to open by mid-June. A sit-down breakfast restaurant and an auto service center are currently finalizing contracts with Vintage Partners. Those establishments would be constructed on the southside of Edison Pointe.

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A citywide, free program aims to assist its homebound residents through phone calls and social visits.

The You Are Not Alone (YANA) program launched in 2015 and has since saved lives, said Mary Witkofski, Maricopa’s community programs manager.

Maricopa Police Department volunteers make weekly phone calls to participants. If contact is not made after three attempts, an emergency contact person is notified.

That’s what happened one Fourth of July two years ago when a woman was not answering a volunteer’s calls.

“The emergency contact, thank goodness, lives down the street,” Witkofski said. “He went (to her house) and actually found his mother laying on the floor.”

Emergency responders transported her to a local hospital where she eventually recovered.

Situations like these, Witkofski said, are reasons YANA is effective; and in cases where an emergency contact person cannot be reached, YANA volunteers will enlist the help of MPD.

In addition to the weekly calls, volunteers connect with participants by making quarterly, planned visits to their homes.

Witkofski said the volunteers socialize, play card games and have conversations with the residents.

Volunteers pass a fingerprint and background clearance and then go through training. MPD volunteers are mandatory reporters to adult protective services and have learned to identify signs of late-life domestic violence, abuse, depression, identity theft and scam.

Vice Mayor Peg Chapados, a senior advocate through Maricopa Seniors Inc., said YANA is a valuable resource for seniors living alone “because it’s a way to ‘stay connected’ and let people know that there is always someone who cares about their well-being.”

Generally, program participants are over 65 and live alone or are alone during the day and have limited mobility.

“(YANA’s purpose) is to maintain their independence, not take it away from them and I think that’s an important piece,” Witkofski said.

Age is not necessarily a qualifying condition, however. Those who have disabilities or are at home recovering from a procedure and are alone during the day are also are eligible for the program.

Qualified, part-time residents are also eligible to enroll while they are living in the city.

The program currently has 19 enrollees and Witkofski would like to see more.

“We definitely have room for growth,” she said.

YANA partners with community and social service agencies like the Maricopa Public Library’s All Access Homebound Delivery, COMET transit, Age-Friendly Committee and the Pinal-Gila Council for Senior Citizens to provide additional resources for its participants.

The program came about after the city conducted a human-needs assessment which identified a gap in senior assistance.

Witkofski said participants who are hearing impaired can opt for a weekly text message instead of phone call.

520-316-6800, ext. 1234

This story appears in the March issue of InMaricopa.

MUSD board discusses options. Photo by Michelle Chance


After two days of interviews, the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board emerged from executive session Wednesday night to announce three superintendent finalists.

Heather Cruz, Tracey Lopeman and Cort Monroe will return March 23 for final interviews.

Those interviews could include a marketing presentation by finalists, with follow-up questions from board members on a variety of subjects.

Cruz is an assistant superintendent at Litchfield Elementary School District. Lopeman is an assistant superintendent at Alhambra Elementary School District. Monroe is an assistant superintendent in Queen Creek Unified School District.

Board members indicated the presentations could give them an idea of how they could potentially handle future board meetings.

In February, the board selected six candidates out of a pool of 30 applicants to interview.

MUSD prompted the search after the Board announced it would only renew former Superintendent Steve Chestnut’s contract through the end of this school year.

Chestnut left MUSD March 9 after the Scottsdale Unified School District recently hired him as deputy superintendent.

The public will have the opportunity to meet the candidates during a Q&A forum March 26 at 7 p.m.

MUSD is expected to announce a finalist for the superintendent vacancy after the community forum and subsequent executive session March 26. Contract negotiations would occur soon afterward.


Dr. Heather Cruz is currently the assistant superintendent for Special Services and Community Relations in Litchfield Elementary District, Phoenix. As such she supervises all Special Education functions, oversees Public Relations and Marketing, and Human Resources.  She has also served as the Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services in Litchfield from 2007-11 and as the Deputy Superintendent in the Peoria Unified School District from 2011–16.  She has experience in areas of curriculum, bond and override elections, employee evaluations, strategic planning, federal programs, and technology. She received her Doctorate in Education in May of 2010 from Arizona State University – West Campus and a Master’s of Music degree in 1995 from Northern Arizona University.  She is the current President of the Arizona School Administrators (ASA) and has served in several positions in ASA since 1999. She is involved in various community outreach organizations such as the Homeless Youth Connection and has served on the Board of Directors for the Southwest Valley YMCA. She states that she has a passionate desire for student success and does not believe that success is defined only by test scores.

Dr. Tracey Lopeman has served as the Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Planning, Implementation, and Accountability for the Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix.  In this role she has supervised the development and implementation of the 5 year strategic plan for the district.  Prior to serving in this position, she was the Principal of Alhambra Tradition School from 2002-2014 and the Executive Director of Leadership Development from 2014 -2016.  She has also taught various subjects at the Middle School level in Alhambra and she mentored principals as a Mentor for the Beat the Odds Institute Center for the Future of Arizona from 2008-2017.   Dr. Lopeman received her Doctor of Education in Educational Administration and Supervision from Arizona State (ASU) and a Master’s of Education from ASU in 1996.  Dr. Lopeman states that she sees obstacles as opportunities when it comes to public education and she enjoys the challenges that accompany educational complexities.

Dr. Cort Monroe was awarded a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University in 2014 and received a Master’s in Educational Administration and Supervision from Arizona State University in 2001. He is currently the Assistant Superintendent of Student Support in Queen Creek Unified School District in Arizona.  Prior to that he served as the Director of Student Services in the Higley Unified School District from 2014-2015 as well as the Principal in Cortina Elementary School in Higley from 2009-2014 and the Principal of Pedro Guerrero Elementary School in Mesa School District from 2003-2006.  He has also taught at the elementary level in Gilbert, Payson, and California.  He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Phoenix and has been an adjunct professor at Chandler Gilbert Community College.  Dr. Monroe is a member of the Brigham Young University McKay School of Education Phoenix Arizona Chapter Alumni Board, Phi Delta Kappa International, Mercy Gilbert Hospital Volunteer Interview Board, Boy Scouts of America, the Arizona Schools Administrators Association, and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.   He has experience in mission and vision planning, instructional leadership, management operations, resource allocation, strategic planning, and budgeting.