Tucson Citizen, September 18, 1997
Interfaith Council Uses Youth Jobs For Political Gain
By Mark Kimble
It's hardly a new revelation that problems are likely to arise when the desires and responsibilities of church and state are commingled. Thats why separation of church and state has become such an important national issue.
But that line of separation has become hazy when it involves the Pima County Interfaith Council — a religion-based organization that seeks and obtains government money for its social programs. And when PCIC last week held a forum for City Council canidates, the line became even hazier.
PCIC is a coalition of about 50 churches, 12 schools and several adult education centers. It generally is seen as a well-intentioned advocate for the poor — a calling that frequently launches the group from the religious into the secular world.
One of the programs operated by PCIC is Schools-Plus-Jobs — a dropout-prevention program that pays high school students $5 per hour to work 10 hours per week in clerical and other jobs in their schools. The program is jointly funded by the city and county and last year received $485,000 in taxpayers’ money
PCIC says it doesn’t run the program but provides only “institutional leadership.” Schools-Plus-Jobs is “run by the parents and students and owned by them,” according to material handed out by PCIC. “Qualifying students must maintain good grades and good attendance and be supported by their parents’ participation."
Nonetheless, PCIC members have a major role in deciding who gets the jobs, which are in high demand. Teri Romero of PCIC said that about 400 students at Sunnyside High School and an equal number at Desert View High School are seeking 100 jobs at each of the schools.
And that puts PCIC in a position of power, as parents and their children do what they can to curry favor withthe group so they get the jobs. It also sets up a complex interweaving of religious beliefs, government money and people running for public office - people who want the backing of PCIC.
In seeking to advance its social agenda, PCIC works to elect public office candidates who support its views. There’s nothing wrong or even unusual about that. Many groups do similar things. PCIC was heavily involved in this week’s primary election in which two seats on the City Council were contested.
As part of that involvement, council candidates last week were called to an “accountability session in which they were expected to pledge support for PCIC programs. The very name of the event gave some idea how unusual it was - — not a forum or a panel at which candidates expressed their views, but a session at which candidates were expected to be “accountable” to the wishes of PCIC.
In a list of questions handed out before the meeting, candidates were asked if they support $500,000 in public money for a job program developed by PCIC as a “down payment on the $10 million Family Development Fund” —which
would also be run by PCIC.
PCIC wanted to show the council candidates that it was a large organization with a lot of potential clout. To do that, it needed to guarantee a big turnout for its “accountability session.” At the same time, it had plenty of parents and their children who needed work in the competitive Schools-Plus-Jobs program.
The two needs came together. PCIC let it be known that a good way for parents and children to show they were involved in the community would be to attend the “accountability session.” There were sign-up sheets, apparently so it could be noted who had been involved when it came time to select students for the jobs.
One parent who attended with her children said it wasn’t a clear-cut quid pro quo in which publicly funded jobs were promised for attendance. But there was no mistaking the implication, she said.
“They told us, ‘The more involved you are, the better chance you have of being picked,’ “said the woman. “They didn’t say things straight out, but you got the idea you better.”
She didn’t want to be identified because she feels that would kill any chance her children have of winning one of the coveted jobs. “I went because I want my kids to be involved in the (Schools-Plus-Jobs) program,” she said. “These kids want these jobs.”
Romero of PCIC said parental involvement is one consideration in picking students for the jobs. And, she said, looking at who attended the meeting is one way of measuring such involvement. But “no one has to do anything that they don’t want to,” she said.
In addition to attending the “accountability session,” parents and their children also were encouraged to go to a preparation meeting the night before, the mother said. At that meeting, students were selected to tell hard-luck stories to council candidates with emphasis on how PCIC programs had turned them around, the woman said.
“They rehearsed them on what they were going to say,” the woman said. “They said, ‘Instead of telling it that way, you should tell it this way’ And the next day it came out different.”
· Those attending the preparation session also were briefed on how to react to answers given by council candidates, she said. There were “floor people” stationed around the room who gave discreet hand signals to the audience. “Palms up meant cheer. Palms down meant complete silence" indicating PCIC didn’t like the answer, she said.
Carol Zimmerman, an unsuccessful candidate in Tuesday’s City Council primary, attended the “accountability session” and noted that “there certainly were a lot of parents and students there.”
She said candidates were told to answer complex questions only with “yes” or “no” answers. “And if you didn’t say the right answer, they booed you,” she added.
She questioned the ethics and the legality of using the lure of publicly funded jobs to attract people to the gathering, comparing it to using public money to lobby elected officials — an expenditure that is illegal.
“It just seems to be a grab for power,” Zimmerman said of the session. “And the power is money.”
Mark Kimble's column appears each Thursday