‘Gunslinger’ wants to launch a Tombstone podcast

This story was published on Arizona Sonora News on March 31, 2016


Lincoln Leavere, an actor at Old Tombstone Western Town, plans to launch Tombstone Radio sometime later this spring. (Photo by Arizona Sonora News)

TOMBSTONE — Lincoln Leavere saunters through a saloon off Allen Street and takes a seat outside. The Tombstone “gunslinger” leans in to explain his plan: He wants to bring the Wild West into the age of podcasts.

Leavere, an actor at Old Tombstone Western Town, along with a few other partners, hopes to launch Tombstone Radio later this spring as a podcast. The radio station will broadcast stories about the West and music to fit the setting in Tombstone, as well as provide updates on the area’s current events.

“It’s a little bit of history, a little bit of rock n’ roll,” Leavere says. “It’s mostly about having fun in the West.”

So, in the town that thrives on living in the late 19th century, the plan is for its podcast to be able to reach anyone around the world through smartphones, tablets or a connection to the Internet.

“It’s not about turning on your radio anymore,” Leavere says. “Everyone is on their phone or on their tablet and we have to tap into that. Even though we’re a 100-plus year old town, we’ve got to catch up.”

The idea of Tombstone Radio is one that’s been around for a couple years, Leavere says. In addition to the music — a mix of outlaw country, blues and rock — the radio station will have some talk shows and stories about the paranormal. Some Tombstone historians also will make appearances, he says.

He plans to work with Deacon Drawdy, a Tombstone IT worker, for the technical logistics of launching Tombstone Radio. Drawdy — who, along with his brother, also created the first website dedicated to Tombstone nearly two decades ago — will develop a website and an app for the podcast.

Leavere’s goal is to draw more interest to Tombstone and Cochise County and entice people from around the country to visit after listening. He also hopes this will help in some way to bring more movies back to Southern Arizona.

Tombstone Radio logo

Tombstone Radio’s Facebook page has more than 400 likes. (Courtesy of Tombstone Radio)

He’s not too concerned with being able to attract local advertisers for Tombstone Radio, and when he does start bringing in money, Leavere wants to give some of it back to the community. This includes making donations to the animal shelter, the senior center, the Marshals Office and the Fire Department.

Leavere already has plans to promote the coming podcast. In addition to acting in gunfights in Tombstone, Leavere also acts in movies and he’s worked alongside the likes of Johnny Depp, Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell. He also played Butch Cassidy on a Fox News program about the Old West.

He plans to tap into those connections, as well as his network of people in Tombstone, to grow an audience for the podcast. Tombstone Radio’s Facebook page has more than 400 likes, as of this week.

Drawdy has a foot in the movie industry, too. He recently returned from a trip to Los Angeles, where he’s working on a film project.

“We’ve got some street cred to be able to pull off something to get people to follow it,” Drawdy says.

Drawdy hopes that Tombstone Radio also will be made available through Micro FM airwaves that would reach the immediate area of Tombstone. That way, he says, visitors can begin their Tombstone experience as they pull up in their cars to the O.K. Corral.

Leavere also requested use of a train car in town from the Tombstone City Council last month to serve as a “home base” for the podcast and attract interest through foot traffic.

Even if some of the loftier goals aren’t met, the Tombstone actor plans on having a good time making the podcast.

“It’s all about having fun,” Leavere says.

With AZ farmers aging fast, who will take over the farm?

This story was published on Arizona Sonora News on March 3, 2016

Average farmer age

The average age of Arizona farmers has risen steadily over the years. (Graphic by Ethan McSweeney/Arizona Sonora News)

Arizona’s farmers are getting older — a lot older.

The average age of a principal farm operator in the state is 61.1 years old, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That age has risen steadily over the past three decades from 50.5 in 1982.

Farmers, officials and students exploring careers in agriculture expressed their own views on why that average age continues to rise in the state and whether that means fewer want to be farmers.

Research conducted by the USDA concluded that because of advancements in health care and technology, farmers are able to work on their land longer than in the past.

“Part of it is that farmers live on their farms so they can phase out production gradually over time,” said Bob Hoppe, an agriculture economist with the USDA Economic Research Service. “This isn’t like a factory job where you quit when you’re 62 or 65.”

Alan Seitz, a farmer in Cochise County, said technology has made working much less arduous for him and other agricultural workers.

“Farming, physically, has been way easier than it has been,” Seitz said. “In some of these operations, you could literally read a magazine while you’re going through a field, whereas historically you would have 100 percent of your attention focused on what you’re doing in the field.”

Arizona’s average age for farmers is also higher than the national average of 58.3 for 2012. While that average will eventually have to stabilize, there is no sign that number is going to level off any time soon, Hoppe said. Thirty-four percent of principal farm operators in the U.S. were above the age of 65 in 2014, according to USDA research.

Sarah Odele, an agriculture teacher at Tombstone High School, believes the answer to why the average age continues to rise may be simpler: Younger generations are not that interested in taking over the family farm.


Tombstone High School’s Future Farmers of America club gives students the chance to get experience in agricultural work. (Photos by Ethan McSweeney/Arizona Sonora News)

Odele, who leads the Future Farmers of America club at Tombstone, said among other things, educational opportunities have expanded for students in rural, agricultural communities. The need to go back to the farm to make a living is not as great as it once was generations ago, she said.

“Things have transitioned in agriculture and you have more options in the whole field itself, too,” she said.

FFA programs at high schools help prepare students interested in agricultural careers. This includes competitions, work-based learning and lab instruction in several areas of agriculture.

Jacob Bohlen, 17, who is a Tombstone High School student in FFA, has no plans to take over his family’s ostrich ranch after he finishes schooling. It’s not something that interests him, he said.

He does plan to stay in the agriculture business by getting a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and genetics.

“There are so many higher-paid opportunities for these kids now,” said Moiria White, an agriculture and science teacher at Willcox High School, where about half of the school’s roughly 400 students are involved in agriculture programs.

Hayden Haas, 18, a Willcox student, is a fourth-generation farmer. He said he plans on coming back and working on his family’s Cochise County farm — which grows corn, barley and pinto beans — after he goes to college and gets a degree.

Due to a strong farming culture in Willcox, Haas said, more students do end up going into agricultural jobs than they would at other places.

“A lot of the families around here are big and have long generations of farming and ranching, so a lot of them do return back, but not all of them,” Haas said.

It’s not always possible, however, for someone to come back and take over the family farm, Haas said.

Luke Todd, 18, another Willcox student, said his older siblings could come back and take over the farm, which would preclude him because the operation can’t support more than one family.


Cattle graze on a ranch north of Willcox.

“I might come back to this area, but … one limit is that there is not the need a lot of time for you to come back and work,” Todd said.

Getting in to agriculture can also be quite expensive.

Between costs for farmland and equipment, weather factors and having the ability to absorb losses, it can be hard for to start in farming without inheriting the land, said Seitz, the Cochise County farmer.

“It’s a tough way to make a living,” Seitz said. “Mother Nature can throw you some curve balls some years that can be very costly. A lot of young folks just don’t want that uncertainty.”

Some farmers also lay some of the blame on the federal estate tax.

Mark Killian, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said the tax makes it far too costly for farmers or ranchers to pass on property to their children.

Currently, the federal estate tax kicks in when someone dies and the value of that person’s property is more than $5.43 million. To inherit that property, a family member would need to pay a certain percentage in taxes. The estate tax exemption amount and the tax rate has fluctuated over the years with legislation.

Killian, who plans on passing on his agricultural business to his sons, called the tax “the number one contributor to getting rid of the family farm.”

“Most families can’t come up with that kind of money and they have to sell,” he said. “So, they end up selling to large conglomerates, and that’s why you’re seeing the average age going up. It’s more difficult for young farmers to have the capital necessary to get started.”


Tombstone High School’s FFA club maintains a chicken coop on its campus.

White, the Willcox High School teacher, is familiar with this issue.

A few years back, she and her siblings faced a tax bill of more than $2 million when they looked to inherit the family ranch they grew up on near Holbrook. An outside operation ended up paying much of the tax cost. “There was the potential of losing the ranch because of the taxes,” she said.

The USDA, however, estimates that just about 0.8 percent of farms in the U.S. would be required to pay the federal estate tax, given how high the value of a property would have to be to meet the federal threshold.

White also points to larger farming operations taking over farming in Arizona, where families no longer want, or can do, the job.

About 97 percent of all farms in the U.S. are family-owned, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture. But the 3 percent of farms considered “large” or “very large” are responsible for about two-thirds of vegetable and dairy sales.

These larger operations can absorb the losses that an ordinary farmer or rancher wouldn’t be able to, White said.

“A lot of times, it’s easier for these kids who do inherit the farm to just sell it,” White said. “It’s a daunting prospect.”


A night at the Tucson Greyhound Park

This story was completed for my Features class


A view of the greyhounds walking to the starting gate from the Dog Days Bar, which is no longer in use.

Eight handlers dressed in all black march their dogs down the dirt track of Tucson Greyhound Park in the post parade for the first race of the night, as the announcer boisterously welcomes crowds to another night of racing in “the fastest sport alive.”

No one is sitting in the grandstands. The clubhouse above sits in darkness. The only person outside is a man smoking a cigarette with his back to the greyhounds, watching the TVs inside the race track’s building.

On this Wednesday night, about 30 people are at the track. Nearly all of them are inside the main betting room, eyes fixed on grainy TV images coming in from greyhound race tracks thousands of miles away. Every minute or so, a bettor would see something on TV and make a dash through the dozens of neon-colored tables in the room for the tellers.

“Oh man, it used to get busy in here,” says Adella Zamorano, a two-decade veteran of the teller counters at the race track.

She and the two other tellers at the counter constantly move money — it’s a cash-only operation — and betting slips for the few dozen track visitors who call out the numbers of races and starting gate positions for dogs racing in Birmingham and Daytona Beach.

Zamorano remembers when hundreds would pack the race track each night. She started working at the track in 1994, when, she recalls, the average crowd size would be about 700 on any given night. Now, that crowd average has dwindled to about 50, she says.

The reason Zamorano gives for the decline of Tucson Greyhound Park is the opening of Indian casinos nearby.

“Maybe we should add some slot machines,” Zamorano says. “That might bring people back.”

While the race track promotes a “sunny and warm” Tucson winter, the temperature dips below 40 degrees for the night. As the greyhounds outside sprint out of the gate for each race, only a few inside will lift up their heads to silently watch.

The decline of racing in at Tucson Greyhound Park mirrors the trend around the country for the sport. Only about 19 greyhound race tracks remain open, according to GREY2K USA Worldwide, a group that advocates for an end to greyhound racing. Thirty-nine states have outlawed commercial dog racing.

At the Tucson Greyhound Park, the races seem to attract more scandals than bettors. During 2015, the Arizona Daily Star published at least four articles detailing alleged abuses at the track, ranging from a trainer drugging dogs to a failure on the part of the race track to report greyhound injuries to the state.

Citing unfair treatment by the media, the track’s general manager declined to be interviewed.

Tom Carter is one who regularly comes out to the Tucson Greyhound Park. He makes the drive down from Sun City, outside Phoenix, one or two times a week to sit at an aqua-colored table inside the main betting room and pore over the Daily Racing Form.

Carter is more familiar than most with the sport. At one time in the late ‘90s Carter owned as many as 85 greyhounds, racing them at tracks around the country.

“I’ve been here during the better days, when they had the clubhouse open,” he says about Tucson Greyhound Park. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that will ever happen here again.”

Now, the race track doesn’t bother to turn on the lights in half of the building and it walled off the clubhouse level nearly a decade ago, according to Zamorano.

Carter, now retired, also blames the casinos for taking away some business, as well as the negative coverage greyhound racing has received.

Carter says “loud-mouthed” activists perpetuate a negative perception of the treatment of greyhounds in racing, amplifying bad apples to make the rest of the sport look bad. His greyhounds, he says, were given heat in the winter, air in the summer and massages and acupuncture when needed.

“They were spoiled,” Carter says. He compares greyhound racing to other sports saying that owners want to “keep their athletes in top shape,” rather than having them abused.

Still, he hopes to see greyhound racing return to some prominence in the sporting world.

“Hopefully, the sport kicks up and gets some new blood in it,” Carter says. “That’s what they need.”

Carter walks outside through a cracked glass door to stand next to the track for a race. The muzzled greyhounds erupt from the starting gate after the bell rings, pursuing the mechanical rabbit that rounds the track.

In a blur, the eight dogs sprint past the empty grandstands, kicking up dirt under the track’s lights. Two greyhounds emerge from the pack as they near the finish line.

It’s a photo finish and Carter hurries back inside.

AZ wineries lobby to loosen regulations as business booms

This story was published on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 11, 2016


Dos Cabezas WineWorks in Sonoita produced more than 16,000 gallons of wine last year. (Ethan McSweeney/Arizona Sonora News Service)

SONOITA — Todd and Kelly Bostock are busy at work among empty boxes and wood barrels of wine.

The two owners of Dos Cabezas WineWorks are bottling caseloads of wine in a small warehouse off Highway 82, where last year they produced more than 16,000 gallons of their products. A short drive away, dotted across the rolling landscape of Sonoita and Elgin, a dozen other wineries are at work with tasting rooms open to tourists visiting the areas.

Dos Cabezas and the other wineries here are part of a burgeoning wine industry taking shape across Arizona — an industry that has been increasingly flexing its muscle as it lobbies to reduce regulations placed on its business. The latest effort involves legislation that would remove a requirement that larger wineries use a distributor to sell to their customers.

Led by Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, more than 30 state lawmakers are sponsoring Senate Bill 1381, which would allow wineries that produce more than 20,000 gallons of wine annually to ship directly to customers. Currently wineries of that size need to go through a distributor in order to ship to customers.

“This is about letting people get access to wine that they want to buy,” said Eric Glomski, winemaker at Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and Page Springs Cellars. He works on legislative issues for the Arizona Wine Growers Association.

Wine distributors in the state have come out in opposition to the bill, Glomski said. Representatives from the Arizona Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association and Beer and Wine Distributors of Arizona did not return requests for comment.

The bill, which comes from the California-based Free the Grapes, would also require that wineries, both in-state and out-of-state, obtain a direct shipment license if they wish to ship to customers in Arizona. Customers ordering from larger wineries around Arizona and around the country would be limited to 18 cases of wine a year per winery.

This is the latest bill the wine industry has pushed at the state Legislature. In recent years, lawmakers also have rolled back regulations around shipments to customers, wine festivals and other aspects of the wine business.


Kelly and Todd Bostock, the two owners of Dos Cabezas WineWorks, bottle wine in a warehouse in Sonoita. (Ethan McSweeney/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“Over the years, our efforts have been to open up the markets incrementally,” Glomski said. “When our industry was small, we didn’t have the resources or the time or the understanding of the industry to duke it out and try to change these laws overnight. Every year, as our industry has grown — and this bill is an example — we take more chunks out of these [regulations].”

Glomski would like to see all the caps on production eventually removed, he said.

This bill comes a year after Arizona microbreweries rallied behind legislation signed into law that raised caps on their beer production.

Only two wineries in the state produce more than the current 20,000-gallon limit, said Rod Keeling, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association. Several other wineries are close to hitting that 20,000-gallon limit, he added.

The bill also would give a boost to Arizona wine clubs seeking to buy wines from larger out-of-state wineries in places such as California, said Keeling. He is also a winemaker at Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards in Pearce.

“We want the wine culture in Arizona to be expanded and we think this helps that,” he said.

When Keeling first started his vineyard a little more than a decade ago, it was the ninth licensed winery in the state. Now more than 90 wineries are operating in the state.

“We’re still pretty darn small, but we’re starting to get some really good attention,” Keeling said.

So small that the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t keep data on wine grape production for the state, said Dave DeWalt, the federal agency’s state statistician for Arizona.

DeWalt said wine grapes in the state are a “relatively small commodity” and represent a small fraction of Arizona’s agriculture industry.

blobWine production has risen by more than 53 percent in the state since 2013, according to figures provided by the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control.

While wine is not among the top 10 agricultural products in the state, it does represent a “growing and significant” area of production, said Julie Murphree, communications director for the Arizona Farm Bureau, an advocacy group for farmers and ranchers.

“It’s one of the strongest potential new growth areas for Arizona agriculture,” Murphree said.

She added that the top two searches on the Farm Bureau’s Fill Your Plate service, which allows users to search a database of products from Arizona farmers and ranchers, are beef and wine.

“More and more people respond every year, and we’re starting to get more and more national attention,” Todd Bostock said.

For the Bostocks, that attention came when the San Francisco Chronicle named them one of the top 10 winemakers to watch in 2015 — the first year the newspaper named someone outside California.

Keeling said, unlike other states that have increased their wine production, Arizona wineries have a “quality mentality.”

The Sonoita-Elgin area, about an hour’s drive southeast from Tucson, is one of the three main wine-producing regions in the state, along with Willcox and the Verde Valley in Northern Arizona.

According to a 2013 study, commissioned by the Arizona Wine Growers Association, wine production in the state is valued at $2.2 million, with about 93 percent of the business occurring in southeastern Arizona.

“More people are looking to purchase land and start wineries out here,” said Lori Reynolds, winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards. “I see really great things coming (for Arizona wine).”

Sonoita Vineyards is the oldest continually operating winery in Arizona, opening in 1983. The winery got its start when Reynolds’ grandfather, Gordon Dutt, a former soil scientist with the University of Arizona, researched wine-growing near Elgin.

The soil composition in the area, he discovered, is a “99 percent” match to what is found in the wine-producing region of Burgundy in France. Following the experiment, Dutt acquired land south of Elgin and planted a vineyard there.

Over the years, Reynolds has seen wineries spring up along the rural roads extending out from Sonoita Vineyard’s 60-acre farm. Reynolds said it’s “exciting” watching new startups bring more attention to the region’s wine-growing prowess.

“Because now we’re not a surprise,” Reynolds said, “and people don’t say, ‘What? There’s wine in Arizona?’”

Joint Research: Former UA professor Sisley ready to begin pot study

Dr. Sue Sisley works on her laptop in a conference room in Weed Depot in Scottsdale. After five years of efforts, Sisley is about to begin a study on the effects of marijuana in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Sue Sisley works on her laptop in a conference room in Weed Depot in Scottsdale. After five years of efforts, Sisley is about to begin a study on the effects of marijuana in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

This story was published in the Daily Wildcat on Oct. 30, 2015

SCOTTSDALE — Dr. Sue Sisley was wearing red scrubs and a smile as she strode into the marijuana-emblazoned office of a company called Weed Depot in a north Scottsdale business park.

Sisley started seeing patients via video out of a conference room in this office that serves as a headquarters for a marijuana dispensary after the UA terminated her contract last summer, which set off a controversy that turned into a cause célèbre for pot activists.

For years, Sisley attempted to begin research on the effects of marijuana in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, only to be faced with setback after setback — the biggest of which being her dismissal from the UA College of Medicine.

The end may now be in sight, however. Sisley and fellow researchers said they expect to begin the three-year study in January or sometime in early 2016.

“Fortunately, after five years, we have persevered and we are now in a position to finally implement this study,” Sisley said.

The last thing that’s needed is final approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration so marijuana plants can be provided for the study, the researchers said. That approval can only be given once the renovations to Sisley’s research site in Phoenix are complete.

Dr. Sisley

Underneath the red scrubs, Sisley was wearing an Arizona Alumni shirt. She pulled out a UA hat, too, but she cautioned that she was not trying to appear “flippant” with the university.

She said there are plenty of good people doing good work at the UA. She’s a graduate of the UA College of Medicine, class of 1995, and worked at the College of Medicine–Phoenix campus.

Sisley’s interest in using marijuana to treat PTSD began because, she said, she has spent about 20 years treating veterans—at the Phoenix Veterans Administration hospital and her own private practice.

Working with these veterans, she noticed the debilitating effects of PTSD on their lives. She estimates that dozens of the veterans she treated over the years committed suicide.

Some veterans would tell her that they felt smoking marijuana helped when it came to coping with PTSD.

“I have people in my practice who are reporting that marijuana has saved their lives, and I’m as skeptical as anyone,” Sisley said. “I felt a duty to at least study the plant rather than just dismissing claims as erroneous or as coming from a bunch of drug-seeking stoners.”

So, working with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, she crafted a study to look at the effects of marijuana in treating PTSD about five years ago.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the study in 2011, followed by the UA’s Institutional Review Board, which is needed to conduct research at the university.

Funding the study was another matter.

Sisley lobbied the Arizona State Legislature in spring 2014 to use money from the state’s medical marijuana revenues to fund her study, an effort that ultimately failed.

In late June 2014, Sisley received notice that her contract with the UA had been terminated. She said the UA caved to political pressure from the Legislature and ousted her from her position the College of Medicine–Phoenix.

Sisley said state Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, and other legislators took issue with her lobbying style at the state Capitol. She cited an August 2014 report in the New York Times that quoted Biggs as saying that a UA lobbyist told him that there “will not be a problem going forward” after he complained about Sisley’s lobbying.

“This is a classic case of science being trumped by politics,” Sisley said.

The UA contests that version of the story.

Chris Sigurdson, vice president of communications at the UA, said in an email that the university did not reject Sisley’s research and offered to host it with another principal investigator—the lead researcher for a study.

MAPS, which sponsors Sisley’s research, declined the UA’s offer to do the study with another researcher at the helm, Sigurdson says.

“Had they agreed,” Sigurdson said, “we would be working on the study today.”

He also points out that the UA successfully lobbied the state Legislature in 2013 to allow medical marijuana to be studied on university campuses, laying the groundwork for the study to take place.

“The UA unreservedly supports academic freedom in research and instruction,” Sigurdson said. “Political pressure has not been a factor in our willingness to conduct medical marijuana research or influenced the assignment of any of our employees.”

After the UA

Whatever the reasons were for her termination, Sisley said she needed another site in Arizona that would host the research.

“Other people would have been devastated and walked away but there was no way I was going to turn my back on this study,” Sisley said.

Sisley said she reached out to Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University, but couldn’t work out a deal for research with either. She then turned to hospitals around Arizona to host the study with no luck.

As she searched for a new site that would allow her to conduct the research, Sisley’s fame grew among marijuana legalization activists. MAPS counted about 400 media reports about her in the months after her dismissal from the UA, she said.

Sisley joked that she should send UA administrators a gift basket because her termination brought widespread media attention to her research efforts. However, she said she never wanted to be a marijuana activist and that she was “forced” into becoming one because she encountered so many obstacles to trying to do research with marijuana.

She has spoken at events from a conference at Walter Reed Military Medical Center to a pro-marijuana rally in Seattle and has been interviewed on CNN.

Sisley maintains an official Facebook page for herself that has accrued more than 2,400 likes. The page’s cover photo imposes an image of Sisley against a backdrop featuring depictions of marijuana plants.

Howard Baer, founder and owner of Weed Depot, is one pot supporter who was drawn to Sisley’s cause.

He said he learned about the UA controversy and offered the office space in Scottsdale for the study. Sisley declined the offer, because she said she didn’t want to be associated with the marijuana industry.

He then offered Sisley space in a conference room in the office for Sisley to use personally for her telemedicine practice. She accepted that offer.

“She can have anything she wants from us,” Baer said.

Sisley said she had been trying to find a space to do the study in Arizona that was not associated with pot legalization advocates, but found it difficult without the backing of a university or a hospital. She said she didn’t want the optics of “being in bed” with the marijuana industry.

After months of difficulties in finding a place, Sisley finally relented. The study will be housed in a warehouse near the Deer Valley Airport in north Phoenix that is located next to a marijuana grow site, satisfying city zoning regulations, she says.

More construction is still needed inside the warehouse to clearly separate the marijuana grow from the study before final DEA approval, Sisley said.

Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS, said this is the culmination of a long-fought effort to begin a critical piece of marijuana research.

“It’s been like pushing a boulder up a hill,” he said. “It’s been extremely slow and problematic, but we’re getting there inch by inch, step by step.”

A ‘redesigned’ study

Marcel Bonn-Miller, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, heard about Sisley’s dismissal from the UA last summer and reached out to MAPS to offer his assistance on the research.

He brought in Dr. Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor in the Behavioral Psychology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University, who has experience in research with marijuana.

After looking at the study, the two determined that they would need to redesign the study in order to maximize the “meaningful findings” that could be discovered with the research, said Bonn-Miller, who also works at the Philadelphia VA hospital.

“The only thing that stayed the same was that we were looking at different types of marijuana on PTSD symptoms,” Bonn-Miller said.

Bonn-Miller will be the coordinating principal investigator for the research, meaning he will be overseeing the entire study.

He said Sisley doesn’t have the experience Bonn-Miller and Vandrey have in marijuana research, because she has worked as a clinician, not a researcher.

This isn’t to discount the efforts Sisley had put into getting the research started, Bonn-Miller said. Sisley’s study as it was had been approved by the FDA and the UA’s institutional review board.

The study will take place at two locations—in Phoenix with Sisley and in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins with Vandrey. 38 patients will be seen at each site for a total of 76 subjects.

Patients, who have been screened and vetted for the study, will come into the sites to smoke different strains of cannabis, Vandrey said. The study will take three years to complete once it begins.

Bonn-Miller, as principal investigator, will write the findings when the research is complete.

Bonn-Miller and Vandrey emphasized they don’t have an agenda going into this study and added that they’re not interested in marijuana activism. Sisley said she wants to present the findings from the study whether it bodes well or not for marijuana legalization advocates.

“We’re trying to streamline these things and give a balanced view of what’s going on without the agenda,” Bonn-Miller said.

The redesigned study also received a $2.2 million grant from the Colorado Department of Health in December, securing the funding that eluded Sisley and MAPS before.

“It’s a good collaboration,” Bonn-Miller said about working with Sisley and MAPS. “I think their enthusiasm and stick-to-itiveness and coupled with our background has really helped push this forward relatively quickly.”

The trouble with pot research

The hurdles to this study aren’t unfamiliar territory for Doblin.

Doblin founded MAPS in 1986 originally to develop medicinal uses for MDMA and then marijuana. In 1992, Doblin worked with a researcher from the University of California, San Francisco, to try to study the effects of marijuana on AIDS patients, only for the research to be stonewalled by federal regulators for four years.

Vandrey said he’s encountered extremes on both sides of the debate on marijuana’s effectiveness—people who are totally for pot and people who are totally against it.

The state of marijuana in the U.S. now is much different than it was even five years ago when Sisley began her efforts.

Arizonans may see marijuana legalization on the ballot in 2016, where they could join Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon as states that allow marijuana for recreational use. Several other states have legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized its use.

This trend of state legalizing pot, however, does not necessarily indicate research on marijuana will be easier in the near future, Doblin said.

The problem is marijuana remains federally illegal and is classified a Schedule I substance by the FDA. Doblin said that momentum may prove to better legitimize marijuana’s medicinal purposes.

“That’s going to change the dynamics and will build even more support for research into marijuana’s medical uses,” he said, “because hopefully the resistance to it will be reduced.”

As for MAPS’s original goal of turning marijuana into a legal prescription drug in the U.S., Doblin estimated that may be about 10 years away.

“It’s still a long road,” he said.

Sisley said after the years of trying to get the research started and her activism for marijuana, her primary concern remains with helping the veterans she’s treated over the years.

“I feel the weight of these veterans on my shoulders every day,” she said.

For now, construction awaits completion at the Phoenix warehouse where patients will soon be coming to smoke marijuana for the study and Sisley and fellow researchers will begin compiling data.

The DEA requires secure storage for the cannabis that will be used in the study. For that Sisley, acquired a safe, one of the only things inside the warehouse now that’s not construction equipment.

That gray safe sits on the concrete floor, waiting for marijuana to be stored inside.

Being a priest at one of Southern Arizona’s most popular tourist sites

This story was completed for my Reporting Public Affairs class

SAN XAVIER INDIAN RESERVATION — Rev. Stephen Barnufsky shuffles his feet gingerly as he makes his way past the altar and up to the pulpit inside Mission San Xavier del Bac on a recent Monday morning.

Scaffolding looms behind Barnufsky as he slouches over the podium to deliver the daily mass’s homily on the value of humility in faith to a couple dozen faithful.

For 12 years, Barnufsky has led the congregation and delivered sermons inside these historical walls, which, he said, is nothing like your typical parish church.

In additional to being a popular tourist site, Mission San Xavier remains an active Roman Catholic parish serving the Tohono O’odham people on the San Xavier Indian Reservation. It’s not an easy job, Barnufsky, 66, said.

The job balances leading the spiritual mission of the church, working with pilgrims and tourists who come through regularly and contending with the seemingly constant state of construction at the mission.

“To juggle all of that is a challenge,” he said.

Barnufsky, who wears a tired visage and comfortable shoes, works six-day weeks. The large, white calendar in his cluttered office is filled with scribbles on nearly every day of the month with obligations.

The Franciscan priest performs mass each day and four times on Sunday with the help of the associate pastor, Rev. Ed Sarrazin. Barnufsky also performs funerals, weddings and baptisms for the local community in the Tohono O’odham village of Wa:k on the San Xavier reservation.

“It’s exciting but it’s also sometimes frustrating because the tourists will sometimes expect that they can come to the church at any time,” Barnufsky said. “The people who want to come to worship are trying to get in there to pray.”

The mission attracts about 200,000 tourists a year, according to the parish.

He makes time for people who come into his office needing to speak to a priest. He also prepares homilies each day and discharges administrative duties overseeing the mission staff.

Barnufsky also helps with the operations of and raise money for the San Xavier Mission School, which serves K-8 students on the reservation.

Cindy DeBro, parish administrative assistant, said Barnufsky recognizes that he needs to be flexible in this unique role of leading Mission San Xavier. DeBro works with Barnufsky to run the administrative operations of the church.

“He knows the expectations of the parish and he meets and exceeds them on a fairly regular basis,” she said.

All the while, Barnufsky said, he has to dodge scaffolding and workers who are completing the restoration of the 218-year-old church.


Mission San Xavier would receive at least $2.5 million for restoration of its east tower and façade should the Pima County bond question Proposition 430 be approved by voters next month. That money raised would be matched by the Patronato San Xavier, a non-secular and nonprofit group that promotes the preservation and restoration of the mission.

Miles Green, executive director of the Patronato, said Barnufsky — who serves on the Patronato Board by virtue of his position — is easy to work with. He said, however, he knows the parish leaders can get quite “vexed” by the renovation work because it is intrusive on their day-to-day work.

“Clearly they appreciate the work that’s being done, but they also realize that the main mission of the church is to minister to the congregation,” Green said.

The parish also recognizes that they are working in an important site that’s part of the history of Tucson and Southern Arizona, Green said.

Barnufsky said that likely means his sermons reach a greater number of individuals than the typical neighborhood parish priest would. Mass at the mission also brings together a more diverse group of people, he said.

“I’ve been in parishes where it’s just all one ethnic group and that’s OK, but it’s nice to have an ethnic mix,” Barnufsky said, “because, hopefully if they pray together, they’ll get along on the outside, too.”

At a typical Sunday mass, the pews will be filled with some Tohono O’odham and others from nearby parts of southern Tucson. Mostly, though, tourists and visitors, many of whom are Catholic, sit in the church during mass to take in the experience, Barnufsky said.

There are drawbacks to a constantly shifting congregation, Barnufsky said.

It’s difficult to maintain relationships with regular congregants because the mission has so few of them, he said.

“In parishes that I’ve been in before, it’s predictable who’s going to be at which mass,” Barnufsky said. “They form a little of community of their own and you learn their names and know when they’re missing. Here there are new faces every week.”

Barnufsky said he takes every opportunity to engage the local reservation community to visit homes and develop relationships.

He said the Tohono O’odham enjoy religious celebrations, such as death anniversaries. “Those add up over time,” he said.

Those celebrations are opportunities for him to engage them and carry out the original purpose of the San Xavier mission — to serve the spiritual needs of the Tohono O’odham people.


Barnufsky considered the priesthood since he was young boy growing up in Spokane, Washington. Something, he said, he owes to having good role models for priests growing up.

He’s been a priest for 39 years, first working in his native Pacific Northwest before moving to California. Barnufsky came to the desert in March 2003 from Oakland, California to serve at the mission.

He keeps a picture of the Cascade Mountains among depictions of Jesus, the mission and the Archbishop Óscar Romero in his office because it reminds him of home. Barnufsky said if he hadn’t become a priest, he probably never would have left Spokane.

Barnufsky said he’s glad to be a priest and he’s had the chance to experience more of the world because of it — visits to Rome to see the Pope and trips to study in England and Scotland.

He doesn’t know how much longer he wants to continue being an active priest.

A retired priest who lives at the mission continued ministering until he was 80 years old, an age Barnufsky said he doesn’t think he will be able to work at.

Barnufsky said he doesn’t forget the reason he decided to enter the priesthood. “It was a desire to help people in a lot of different ways and draw closer to God. That’s basically the reason I’ve stayed, too,” he said.

“Sometimes your reason for staying is more important than the reason you started,” he said about the priesthood. “When you start, you have high ideals — and that’s true in any profession — and when reality sets in, it’s not exactly like the ideal. You have to ask ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I still here?’ But I think life has been good to me.”

High teacher turnover, labor issues hound two local charter schools

This is an investigative report I did for the Green Valley News and Sahuarita Sun on a troubled charter district with schools in Sahuarita and Tucson. It was published online on July 24, 2015 and in print on July 26.

Air and Space Academy advertises for enrollment outside its school in Madera Marketplace in Sahuarita.

Air and Space Academy advertises for enrollment outside its school in Madera Marketplace in Sahuarita.

A charter school is preparing for its fifth year in Sahuarita in the face of dozens of allegations by former teachers and parents of poor management, shoddy record-keeping, high teacher turnover and poor treatment by its founder.

Lifelong Learning Research Institute, which holds charters for Jack Thoman Air and Space Academy and the Digital Technology Academy, both in Sahuarita, as well as Lifelong Learning Academy in Tucson, also has been the target of investigations by federal and state labor boards and the subject of several complaints filed with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools that have gone unanswered by founder Mary Lou Klem.

Interviews with former teachers and administrators and with parents of former students, along with public records, internal school documents, police reports and performance reviews paint a picture of an organization struggling with high teacher and staff turnover brought on by what they call hostile work conditions and unresponsive leadership.

Former employees who talked about the schools with the Green Valley News  said many of the problems stem from Klem, whose management style was described by several as “abusive.” They said she berated staff and teachers in private and in front of students, and cultivated a climate of fear and intimidation through threats to call police or file lawsuits.

Lifelong Learning Research Institute opened in Tucson with one school in 2002. Digital Technology Academy opened in Green Valley in 2010 under a separate charter, and Air and Space followed in Sahuarita in 2011. Lifelong also runs a preschool at its Sahuarita campus. Both Sahuarita schools operate out of the same building in Madera Marketplace, east of Walmart, though Klem said Digital Technology Academy will move to Tucson this fall. School starts Aug. 3.

Klem, her husband, Robert Klem, and Shirley Williamson — who former employees said ran the lunch program — are the only members of the schools’ governing board, according to the state charter board.

Work environment

Former employees of the three charter schools said the Klems ran the organization through intimidation tactics and threats.

Carol Webb, a former administrator at Digital, said Klem subjected employees to “abusive” treatment, costing the schools several employees and at least one administrator.

Webb, who previously worked for the Sahuarita Unified School District, quit Lifelong after she was transferred to Air and Space, where she called the treatment “unbearable.” Webb said Klem berated her for the way she dressed and that Klem accused her of stealing a steel drum case. Klem denies she made the theft allegation.

“There’s no other word for her but bully,” said Sharri Cagle, who worked closely with Klem as the paid parent liaison for Air and Space in 2011. “She’s a grown-up bully.”

Juanita Duarte, who taught at both Air and Space Academy and Lifelong Learning Academy, said she witnessed Mary Lou Klem berate an Air and Space teacher in front of staff after his students fell behind while he was out for health issues. She said teachers at the Tucson school who were fed up with Klem’s management style tried to get her to join a walkout. She declined and the walkout never happened, she said.

Teresa Bullard, a former teacher at Lifelong Learning Academy, said Robert Klem came into her classroom and swore at a student because the student was holding a pencil near a wall and could have put a mark on it. Bullard said she was shocked and told him the student was not doing anything wrong.

Bullard said she was fired in April 2014 by Mary Lou Klem, who called sheriff’s deputies to escort her from the property. A Pima County Sheriff’s report notes that Bullard’s demeanor was calm even though Klem accused her of “yelling and tearing things off the walls” in the report.

Bullard, who now works at another Tucson charter school, said she was let go for failing to produce lesson plans Klem had asked for, even though they were never a requirement in the past. Bullard said it was an excuse to fire her for reasons that still aren’t clear to her.

Duarte said she was fired by Klem around the same time, also for not producing lesson plans going back to when she was hired in 2012. She now works as a special education teacher at a Tucson public school.

The request from Klem came at the same time the schools were undergoing an evaluation by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools that determined they fell below standards in every area they looked at, including lesson planning.

In an emailed response to allegations, Klem said, “We believe creating an environment with clear expectations for employees is in the best interest of our students, and we provide regular feedback in a formal and honest manner to staff members to ensure that they understand these expectations.”

Formal complaints

The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools produced six complaints against Lifelong schools in Tucson and Sahuarita. Former teachers and parents said there should be far more on file, and said many of their complaints went unanswered by the schools and were not investigated by the state board. One parent’s complaint in 2014 was not properly filed by the charter board until a reporter asked about its status last month.

In several of the six reports, Klem repeatedly failed to address parent concerns and ignored emails, letters, office visits and phone calls from parents and letters from the state charter board requesting action.

One parent said a staff member at the Tucson campus hung up on her husband when he tried to get information on a playground accident involving their child.

Another parent said she had sent Mary Lou Klem emails about a playground incident involving her daughter, according to a letter to the charter schools board. When she reached Klem by phone, “she said she did not have time to read her emails,” according to the letter, obtained through a public records request. Klem was contacted twice by mail by the state and at one point said she would address the incident but never did, according to records.

Several months after the incident, the state charter board’s director of government and financial affairs contacted the parents and said, “As you know, we have tried to act as a facilitator regarding this issue and also have not gotten a response from Ms. Klem regarding the specific incident …” She then offered to help the family find “another school that may better suit your needs.”

Bianca Ulibarri, an executive assistant with the state charter schools board, said they don’t deal with personnel issues, instead focusing on whether curriculum conforms to state standards.

“If the concerns are regarding ‘the teacher is mean to my student,’ then we don’t provide oversight over employees or personnel,” said Ulibarri, who is also listed as a constituent services specialist by the board. She said there is no penalty if a charter school does not respond to a complaint.

Whitney Chapa, the board’s executive director, said matters of personnel complaints are not within the board’s scope of oversight.

Duarte, Bullard and Cagle said they attempted to file complaints with the state charter board and never received responses.

“[The charter board] gave me the runaround when I tried to file a complaint,” Duarte said.

Ulibarri said the online system that the board uses to receive complaints was put in place this year and will only indicate complaints in the system going forward.

In the classroom

Formers teachers and parents said Klem’s management style took its toll and teacher turnover was high. Klem, in an email late Friday, said her teacher turnover rate “is similar to that of other schools throughout Arizona.”

Melissa King, whose children attended Air and Space until May, said her special-needs son went through seven teachers last school year. She said her daughter’s fourth-grade teacher quit halfway through the school year.

King said her son’s last teacher told her she “would never work for Klem’s schools again.”

Duarte said she was hired to teach third grade at Air and Space in Sahuarita in 2012, but was moved to a combined seventh and eighth grade class that October after that teacher quit. The subsequent third-grade teacher quit shortly afterward, too, she said, along with the teacher she berated in front of staff.

Debra Luedtke, who has been executive assistant for Air and Space since April, said claims of teachers quitting are exaggerated but did not elaborate.

Cagle, the parent liaison in 2011, a paid position, said that when she helped set up the school, Klem and the administration did not provide the curriculum when she asked for it.

“I was feeling bad for teachers because they didn’t have the tools they needed to teach,” Cagle said. She said then-principal Irma Celez was “maybe there five percent” of the time.

“It was awful for kids to think that I was the principal,” Cagle said. “It was a joke. I was there all the time and she wasn’t.”

Poor marks

A September 2014 report from the state charter schools board delivered a scathing critique of the operations at Lifelong’s Sahuarita schools following a site visit. The report evaluated the charter schools as “falls far below” — the lowest mark on progress — in curriculum, monitoring instruction, assessment and professional development.

The report — called a Demonstration of Sufficient Progress — noted that the charter schools “provided evidence of disjointed efforts” to develop curriculum in step with state standards.

Air and Space and Digital ultimately were not rated by the charter board, which Chapa said indicates the equivalent of a low rating.

“For schools that are not rated on our dash board, they are treated as if they do not meet [for academic performance],” Chapa said.

The state sees it differently. Air and Space currently has an “A” rating from the Arizona Department of Education’s letter grading system, which indicates that it demonstrates an “excellent level of performance,” according to an ADE guide for parents. Digital did not receive a letter grade from ADE.

Lifelong in Tucson holds a “B” rating from ADE and a “meets standard” rating from the state charter board.

The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools report for Air and Space and Digital also stated that the schools did not provide evidence that teachers are formally evaluated or that it works with teachers to improve performance.

Duarte and Bullard said they were given little guidance from administration on what curriculum to teach. Duarte said she had to research state standards online on her own time to come up with lesson plans.

“As a teacher, I had zero support and I was left on my own,” Bullard said of the Tucson school. “There were no curriculum or lesson plans and the previous teacher didn’t have anything to give me.”

Bullard, who worked at the school from December 2013 until April 2014, said this made the demand for lesson plans by Klem seem more like an excuse to get rid of her.

Nikki Billings, who teaches a combined fifth and sixth grade class at Air and Space, said Klem has never treated her poorly and has been professional with her.

“I’m very happy,” she said. “I’ve worked here for three years. I have no problems with [Air and Space].”

Parents’ battle

Hunter Roberts had plenty of problems with Air and Space.

He and his wife, Christina, enrolled their daughter in a second grade class in fall 2014, after being sold on the small class sizes and curriculum the school advertised.

Roberts said they liked their daughter’s teacher but that she quit abruptly in late September, just a couple of months into the school year. When he contacted the teacher, she told him she left because of Klem, he said.

In a meeting with Klem, Roberts said he confronted her about the ex-teacher’s complaints about how she was treated. He said Klem seemed caught off guard and that she did not follow up on the meeting.

Roberts pulled his daughter out of the school in October 2014, and launched a Facebook group with other parents at Air and Space Academy in which they voiced their grievances against Klem and the school. Soon, former teachers and administrators from Lifelong joined the group and chimed in, complaining of the situation at Lifelong schools.

Roberts said he went to the school and sought board minutes, which are public record, but Lifelong would not provide them. He said the Klems threatened to the call the police if he did not leave. Roberts filed a complaint with state charter schools board that month, listing grievances ranging from a hostile environment to a failure to provide him with public records.

Ulibarri said Roberts’ complaint fell outside the state charter board’s purview so it was forwarded to Klem, and the board gave her a deadline to respond. Roberts said he still hasn’t received a response.

The state charter schools board didn’t put Roberts’ letter in their file on Lifelong’s Sahuarita charter until an inquiry from a reporter in June. Before that, the board said there were no complaints against the schools but has since turned over six.

Labor issues

In claims with the state Labor Department, which is part of the Industrial Commission of Arizona, two employees of Lifelong cited “hostile work environment” as their reasons for quitting. One claim includes a 2010 email exchange between Mary Lou Klem and a Lifelong Learning Academy teacher who had quit. The teacher emailed Klem to ask why she hadn’t received her $175 paycheck.

Klem responded: “You are a liar. You were not hired by Lifelong Learning Academy. We will be reporting you to DES for fraud through our school lawyer.”

The ICA found in favor of the teacher and ordered Klem to pay.

Five claims were filed with the ICA from 2010 to 2014 against Lifelong. The claims come from former teachers and a former principal at Lifelong Learning Academy, according to ICA records.

The Labor Department determined in favor of Lifelong in one case, and one was tossed because it was not filed within statutory time limits. Lifelong was order to pay teachers in the other three cases. Klem told the Green Valley News she is “not aware of five labor claims,” but added, “we have learned from these situations and feel our school is stronger for it.”

One of those cases involved Bullard, who filed a complaint in 2014 after she was fired. The charter holder was ordered to pay her about $580, though Bullard said she has yet to see the money. Klem never responded to notices from the Labor Department, according to ICA documents.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division launched an investigation into unpaid overtime at Air and Space Academy, according to Jesus Oliveras, a spokesman for the federal agency’s Phoenix office.

Oliveras said the investigation, conducted by the department’s Tucson office, determined that the school owed $4,637 in back wages to 15 employees. He said the school has since paid up.

Klem answered about a half of the dozen questions emailed to her July 1 by a reporter then twice put off phone interviews, finally saying through a staff member that she could talk when school opened Aug. 3. She then answered the rest of the questions in an email sent late evening July 24.

In Klem’s emailed responses, she attributed the labor complaints to a former site administrator and a case of nepotism, which she did not clarify when asked. She also did not specify whether she was referring to the state or federal investigations.

In the state labor claims, there is no indication the five claimants are related. Bullard said it was Klem she dealt with at the Tucson location, not another site administrator. Klem also responded to all of the state labor claims except for Bullard’s.

Donna Grimes, a former teacher at Air and Space, filed a civil complaint in September 2014 through Green Valley Justice Court against the school and Klem for more than $6,000 in unpaid wages. Grimes settled with the school for $636 in January, according to court records. Grimes declined to comment on the case.

Ulibarri said the charter board was unaware of the labor claims and federal investigation with Lifelong because it does not have access to that information. She added that the state Labor Department does not provide the details of the labor claims because that information is considered confidential with the school employees.

“We have tried in the past, but the labor board does not release that information to us,” she said.

The state Labor Department provided copies of the claims filed against Lifelong Learning Academy to the Green Valley News through a public records request.

Enrollment, revenue falling

In August 2011, about a month after Air and Space opened, a fire alarm led to Sharri Cagle quitting her job and pulling her three children out of the school. Dozens of students followed.

The alarm went off the afternoon of Aug. 24; Cagle was at the school to pick up her children and said there were no administrators on campus, only teachers.

She helped evacuate students and the next day wrote a memo to Klem detailing safety issues she felt needed to be addressed, including obstructions in the hallway, rooms that firefighters couldn’t access, and general confusion among students and teachers over procedures when a fire alarm sounds.

“We had some kids extremely upset and a teacher was not that comforting and took it as ‘drama,’” Cagle wrote in the memo. “One child specifically has a genuine fear and was hysterical.”

Later that evening, Cagle was called to the school by police, where she was met by the principal. Police told her that a video indicated she had purposely pulled the alarm.

According to a Sahuarita police report, an equipment inspection by firefighters and a second video clearly showed Cagle had not pulled an alarm.

She packed up her desk that night and never returned.

Cagle believes Klem wanted to get rid of her because she took seriously her job of voicing parents’ concerns with the school.

“I was to hear the parents and be their voice,” she said. “So, when I heard something or parents had issues – good or bad – I let her know, but she didn’t want to know,” Cagle said.

According to a roster from the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, more than 160 students were enrolled at Air and Space and 65 were enrolled at Digital Technology Academy. An Oct. 1, 2011, enrollment count from the Arizona Department of Education lists 70 students at Air and Space and 60 students at Digital. In October 2014, the total for both schools was 82, according to the state education department figures.

Thirty-two students were enrolled at Lifelong Learning Academy in Tucson in 2014, down from 70 in 2011, and 172 in 2010, according to state education enrollment counts.

As enrollment drops, so does revenue. In 2013, the school reported $1.45 million in revenue and $1.74 million in expenses on tax forms.

In emails from Klem contained in labor claims, she expressed concerns over falling enrollment and asked staff to reverse the trend. Air and Space Academy paid for a social media advertising campaign with the Sahuarita Sun, a sister paper of the Green Valley News, this month, which encouraged enrollment for the upcoming year and boasted its credentials as “an ‘A’ charter school.”

Two former employees said it’s important to get information out on the schools so parents can make informed choices.

“The experience my family and I had at A&S should not have to be experienced by any other family,” said Cagle, who moved to Florida last year. “Who would think I am speaking of a school experience and it could be so horrifying? I felt horrible for my children and very responsible for the other families and their children.”

“When I left, I just wanted to be away from it all,” said Webb, the former administrator. “But the right thing to do is to keep families from making a huge mistake and to let future staff know what it is really like.”

View this story online here

Flying Blind? Drones grow in popularity, but rules are murky

This story appeared in the Green Valley News and Sun on June 14, 2015.

John Malozsak, a real estate agent, flies one of his drones in the desert near Sahuarita.

John Malozsak, a real estate agent, flies one of his drones in the desert near Sahuarita.

The gray, cross-shape drone is light — no more than three and a half pounds — and its four rotors whir as they cut through the June heat above Sahuarita.

A hundred feet below in a parking lot is John Malozsak at the controls. For him, the drone is more than a hobby; it’s a business opportunity.

Malozsak, a Sahuarita real estate agent, is already using his camera-equipped drone to help sell homes. “It gives you just that different angle,” he said. “It’s an in-between shot from those satellite images and ground shots.”

Malozsak is among a growing number of entrepreneurs, business owners and legal experts trying to navigate the quickly changing — and often disputable — laws and regulations that govern drones.

As the popularity rises and prices drop, more drones — the FAA calls them unmanned aerial systems — will land in the hands of casual users, raising more ethical and legal questions.

Who’s in control?

Malozsak, who’s flown drones for almost two years, said he is operating legally by keeping within what the FAA calls Class G airspace, which is uncontrolled airspace for air traffic under 1,200 feet. He says there is no local, state or federal statute affecting Sahuarita in this area.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor wouldn’t comment on a specific case but said airspace class is “irrelevant” because the agency’s drone regulations apply to all airspace.

“Anyone who wants to operate an unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes must have authorization from the FAA,” he said.

Gregor said the FAA has enforcement tools at its disposal to address violations but said it has imposed fewer than 12 fines nationwide for unauthorized drone use.

James Arrowood, an attorney with Scottsdale-based Frutkin Law Firm, who works with clients across the state on drone issues, agrees that keeping it in Class G airspace is not enough to comply with current regulations. But Arrowood, who teaches the state bar course on drone law, said the FAA has been under pressure to update drone regulations and added that this area of law is moving “extremely quickly.”

“Once I get caught up on changes, the government changes the rules again,” he said.

The FAA proposed a new set of regulations in February that would allow drones to be flown for commercial use. The new rules would likely not go into effect until next year.

Malozsak said he grounded his drones for a time a few months ago when he followed the legal issues being sorted with the FAA, but he determined that since there was no statute in place, “I decided it was time to get back up in the air and keep doing this.”

Flying in Tucson

For now, however, what is needed to use a drone for commercial purposes is a Section 333 exemption, according to the FAA and Arrowood, which is what Tucson real estate agent Doug Trudeau obtained recently. The FAA has granted more than 500 such exemptions in the past year, with Trudeau’s being among the first.

More than five months after Trudeau applied, the FAA gave him 33 conditions to meet when the agency approved his exemption in January. He complied and on Tuesday used a drone to help show a house for sale in Tucson.

Trudeau said he had to notify the FAA prior to the drone’s flight and had Ken Dungey, who has the required private pilot’s license, operate the drone while he served as a lookout for passing aircraft.

The home Trudeau chose to show was perfect for the drone, he said, sitting on 25 acres in the scenic Tucson Mountains.

“With Google, you just get a satellite shot and the advantage of doing this with a drone is I can get different angles and take different shots,” Trudeau said, as they gave a demonstration. “I can give a really good perspective of the house that you just can’t get from the ground or any other means.”

While he said it’s not for every home, Trudeau believes drones are the future of real estate in the area with many homes up offering views of the Sonoran Desert.

Town rules

In addition to his real estate business at Suburban Real Estate Group, Malozsak operates Bird Machine Aerials, which offers aerial photography and video services with his drones to filmmakers, special events and other real estate agents.

Because technology allowing private citizens to operate drones easily and affordably is relatively new, few regulations are in place among states and municipalities.

No regulations are in place at the state level. Two bills in 2013 at the state Legislature sought to regulate the use of drones by law enforcement and the public but failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

Debbie Summers, director of Sahuarita’s Parks and Recreation, said the town is working to develop a policy or an ordinance to address the use of drones within the town.

Sahuarita has, however, given waivers to Malozsak and another drone operator to use them in Sahuarita parks, she said.

Dungey, the drone pilot, said there is an online community of people across the world who use drones and added there are efforts to self-regulate their flights.

“You’ve got people doing stupid stuff and that’s going to hurt the [drone] business. It’s because it’s so easy, you just go buy [a drone] and it comes in the mail,” he said. “Those are the people that are killing it.”

Police work

Sahuarita Police Chief John Noland, who wrote a research paper in 2012 on how law enforcement could handle the advance in drone technology, said changes need to be made soon at the local level to address drones.

“If we don’t, as municipalities, start to craft uses or expectations for drones, then basically critical mass would take over and expectations would be dictated to us,” he said.

The FAA has issued guidelines to law enforcements agencies on how to handle potential unauthorized drone use, though Noland and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said they have not encountered the problem.

The sheriff’s department has used drones on a “limited basis” in the past, said Lt. Jeffrey Palmer, head of the department’s Green Valley substation. He added that the department might be using them increasingly in the “not too distant future.”

SPD has not used drones in the past and has no plans to acquire any right now, Noland said.

He added law enforcement would have several potential uses for drones, but privacy concerns still need to be worked out especially as drones available to the public become smaller and more advanced.

“Imagine you’re in your yard and someone is flying a drone six feet off the ground or 10 feet off the ground. Is that an invasion of privacy?” Noland said. “I tend to think it would, but there is no law anywhere that prohibits someone from flying over and filming you in your yard.”

As debate continues to swirl around drones, though, Malozsak said he will continue to operate his drone business and when new FAA regulations come out, he will comply.

“Until then, I will just have to fly with care and be responsible,” he said.

Board of Regents approves tuition hikes at state universities

This story appeared in the Daily Wildcat on May 5, 2015

PHOENIX — The Arizona Board of Regents approved tuition hikes on Monday at the state’s three public universities for the next academic year, following sharp cuts in state funding.

Mark Killian, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, sits as the board discusses a proposed lower tuition rate for "dreamers" on Monday. The regents also voted to approve tuition hikes at the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.

Mark Killian, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, sits as the board discusses a proposed lower tuition rate for “dreamers” on Monday. The regents also voted to approve tuition hikes at the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.

The regents approved the new tuition and fee structures for the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University that were proposed by their presidents last month. This ends a month-long tuition-setting process that included public hearings and workshops with university leaders.

UA President Ann Weaver Hart said the UA worked closely with student leaders in the Associated Students of the University of Arizona and the Graduate and Professional Student Council in coming to the tuition rates it presented to the board of regents, which governs the three state universities.

Under the plan approved on a 6-1 vote, the tuition rates will rise at the UA for incoming in-state students by 4.07 percent, or $446, and incoming out-of-state students by 10.91 percent, or $3,209.

Students under the guaranteed tuition program, which the UA adopted last year, will not see their tuition bill rise for the 2015-2016 academic year. For current students who did not opt into the guaranteed tuition program, rates will increase 2.75 percent for in-state and 5.8 percent for out-of-state.

Graduate students will see tuition rates increase by 2.77 percent for in-state and 5.8 percent for out-of-state. Also, certain master’s programs will be under the guaranteed tuition program, which now only applies to undergraduate students.

The lone dissenting vote on the UA’s proposal came from Regent Bill Ridenour, who said the rates should have been higher for out-of-state and international students.

Hart said student leaders agreed that the new rates adopted for non-Arizona students represented a “fair distribution of the burden of the cuts from the Legislature.”

The state Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey approved a $99 million — or about 13 percent — cut in state funding to Arizona’s universities in March, amounting to $53.3 million from ASU, $28.4 million from the UA and $17.3 million from NAU. The state has cut nearly 50 percent of its funding to higher education since the Great Recession.

Regents chairman Mark Killian said the regents need to do more to show the Legislature the value of universities to the state, or they could find themselves in the same position again next year.

“The losers are the institutions and the students,” Killian said. “Even with these increases in fees and tuition, we’re still going to have to let people go. We’re going to have to cut back on a lot of things. We’re still running deficits in many areas.”

He later said he had spoken with attorneys, who are researching whether the board of regents can pursue a lawsuit against the Legislature for its cuts to state universities that may violate the portion of the Arizona Constitution that mandates public education must be as close to free as possible.

Killian said he believed a cap at $5,000 a year for in-state students would be a fair tuition rate and comply with the constitutional provision.

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, referred to an Associated Press report when asked about the governor’s position on the tuition hikes.

Ducey told the AP that he opposes the increases brought to regents Monday, but he did not attend the board meeting. Ducey is a member of the board by virtue of his position as governor.

Killian attempted to add an amendment to ASU’s proposal for a one-time fee of $320 for in-state students to cover state cuts that would lower it to $200. The board voted down the amendment 6-2 with only Killian and Ridenour in support.

Hart said last week at another board of regents meeting that she did not believe a temporary surcharge like ASU’s plan would be right for the UA because there is no reason to believe state funding would be restored any time soon.

She added that this round of state cuts and tuition increases demonstrates that UA students should opt into the guaranteed tuition program if they haven’t already.

“It will save them tuition dollars right off the top,” Hart said.

Tuition rates for Dreamers

The regents also appeared supportive of a proposed lower tuition rate for so-called Dreamers, including those under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

The proposal would enable those who came to the U.S. as children and graduated from an Arizona high school to opt to pay 150 percent of in-state tuition rates at state universities for the next academic year. This would amount to about a $17,100 tuition rate at the UA.

Students currently enrolled in state universities who would qualify under the standards set by regents could apply to get the new Dreamer tuition rate.

Regent LuAnn Leonard said this falls in line with the board’s mission to ensure access to education for Arizona students and has public support.

“I feel that this is the right thing to do at this moment,” Leonard said.

Currently, Dreamers have to pay out-of-state tuition rates to attend Arizona universities. Voters approved Proposition 300, a ballot measure in 2006 that prohibited the state from providing any assistance for tuition or in-state tuition to non-U.S. citizens or those who do not have a legal immigration status. Killian said he believed the proposed policy would be compliant under that law.

Ducey has not yet taken a position on the proposal, according to the AP.

When asked about her position on the proposal, Hart said she wants the board of regents to support all in-state students, including Dreamers.

“This is good for all of us,” Hart said. “I’m very interested in hearing the regents’ point of view on this particular proposal and see if they find that to meet their needs.”

The board of regents will formally take up a vote on the Dreamers tuition issue at its next meeting in June.

Regents hear proposals calling for Ariz. tuition hikes

This story appeared in the Daily Wildcat on April 28, 2015

TEMPE — Facing deep cuts from the state, Arizona university presidents formally presented their tuition proposals to the Arizona Board of Regents at a meeting Monday as it prepares to set rates for the next academic year.

The proposals, which call for increases in tuition and fees at the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, drew discussion and scrutiny from the regents at the meeting on ASU’s Tempe campus. The board will vote to set the rates for Arizona students on May 4.

UA President Ann Weaver Hart called these increases necessary and a “very serious response” to cuts in funding from the state.

“This is the reality that we face,” she said. “We are committed to doing the right thing on tuition and serving our students.”

The state Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey slashed $99 million in funding for higher education, which takes $53 million from ASU, $28.2 million from the UA and $17.2 million from NAU.

At the meeting, the regents continued their criticism of state leaders for the budget, which was signed by Ducey last month.

Board Chairman Mark Killian said he felt that “some in the Legislature are conducting a war on our public institutions.” He added that he is hearing rumors of further cuts to universities next year from the state.

“If that’s the case, we’re going to be right back here a year from now trying to figure out how to glue the place together and keep it going, and it’s not our fault,” Killian said. “It’s not the students’ fault. It’s a lack of recognition of what these institutions are doing.”

With these cuts, the total number of cuts to universities from the state since 2008 will total about $500 million, down from nearly $1.2 billion. The UA has nearly doubled its in-state tuition rate over the same period of time.

“I really resent being put in this position, because I felt the last couple of years we were making some progress,” Killian said.

The UA’s proposal calls for a 4.07 percent tuition increase for incoming in-state undergraduate students and a 10.9 percent hike for new out-of-state undergraduate students. For graduate students, the increases are 2.77 percent for in-state and 5.8 for out-of-state.

The guaranteed tuition program adopted last year ensures many current undergraduate students will not see their tuition increase. Under the proposal, current students who did not opt to the program will see smaller increases of 2.75 percent for in-state students and 5.8 percent for out-of-state students.

The UA’s proposal also includes an additional 19 program fees and 20 class fees for students.  This would bring the total to 96 program fees and 1,310 class fees for the university. The new program fees would generate an additional $2.9 million for the UA.

Mandatory fees would also be brought under the guaranteed tuition program, as well as some masters programs at the UA.

Hart said the proposal does not totally shift the burden on to students as she said the university will make cuts to its own budget.

“This is not simply a matter of adding revenue,” she said.

Student Regent Valerie Hanna said UA leadership did consider student leaders’ input throughout the months-long tuition-setting process.

The regents also debated the rising number of fees being charged to students at state universities. The number of program fees at the UA has nearly tripled since 2007, but the number of class fees has decreased by about 300 in the past five years.

Killian said the increasing fees at the UA, ASU and NAU, which coincided with decreases in state funding, show the blame lies at the feet of the Legislature. He suggested that, in an effort to highlight how much state cuts are costing students, the regents should roll all the fees into the price of tuition that everyone would pay.

Killian has recently called for the board of regents to sue the Legislature for violating the part of the Arizona constitution that states a college education should be as close to free as possible.

Regent Rick Myers defended the fees as a more transparent way for students to know that money is going to a specific purpose.

“There actually is a lot of accountability as well as visibility that comes with the way we’re putting fees in place,” he said. “Students this year were very supportive of the process the universities went through because they knew exactly how the money would be spent.”

ASU proposed a temporary $320 fee to cover the sharp cuts from the state for its in-state students. Some regents said they liked the idea of the surcharge, but Hart later said she didn’t believe that would be right for the UA.

Hart said, based on comments from Ducey at a meeting earlier this month, there is no reason to believe state funding for the universities will be restored any time soon.