A Temecula high school's decision to opt out of a band competition has thrust the campus into the national debate over Arizona's new immigration law.
During an interview on a talk radio program Tuesday, an Arizona tourism official said she was told the Great Oak High School band canceled a trip to perform in December's Fiesta Bowl National Band Championship because of the law.
In response to dozens of callers who were angry when they heard the school was choosing to boycott Arizona, the Temecula Valley Unified School District posted a statement on its website that said the move was made strictly for financial reasons.
The controversy started when Kristen Jarnagin, vice president of communications for the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, went on the "John & Ken Show" on KFI AM 640 based in Los Angeles on Tuesday, saying it was reported to her by a hotel employee that the band canceled its plans because of a law that will require Arizona law enforcement officers to question people they stop about their immigration status.
The district's statement disputed that report.
"It was not a political decision. It was a financial decision," Superintendent Carol Leighty said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Jarnagin said her association has asked hotels in the state to report whenever a group cancels because of the immigration law that was passed last month. She said she has been told that 23 groups have cited the law in canceling an event.
"The sales associate has some very specific information (about Great Oak)," Jarnagin said in a phone conversation Wednesday. "In the cancellation process, it was linked to immigration."
She said the unidentified person who canceled the reservation stated that it was a unilateral decision by the band leader based on personal views and that parents weren't consulted.
Leighty disputed that assertion, too.
"Because a lot of co-curricular activities are funded by parents, that decision is not made unilaterally," she said.
Jarnagin said she prefers to think money was the real cause for the cancellation.
"We hope that it is because of the budget and not because of political views," she said. "If it's budget constraints, it makes us feel different."
Jarnagin said she was surprised that the band would cancel its reservations seven months before the competition, noting that groups vie to be selected and know what the costs will be during the process.
She said cancellations are rare, and schools often wait for years to be selected.
To her knowledge, Great Oak is the only school that has backed out of the event, Jarnagin said.
The Spirit of Great Oak Band has participated in the Fiesta Bowl event before, finishing in second place in 2007.
"It's a very expensive endeavor," Leighty said. "It's a honor to be invited, but they don't pay for us to go."
Because money for such trips is provided by students' families and booster clubs, the district doesn't decide where they go, although travel plans do go before the school board for approval. This trip had not yet reached that stage, Leighty said.
She said band boosters were aware of the costs when they applied to participate, but finances have gotten tighter and donations have diminished recently.
"(Boosters) said it was very difficult to raise (money) this year," Leighty said. "What they raise will go to other events. ... I think they had a very sound financial reason for this decision."
Cell phone messages left for the president and two vice presidents listed on the band booster website also were not returned.
Great Oak band director Jerry Burdick-Rutz did not return phone calls Wednesday.
"He wants to stick to the statement," district spokeswoman Melanie Norton said. "He doesn't want to say anything more because he feels it's furthering something that isn't true."
The city has been a stronghold of support for anti-illegal immigration laws, with residents taking to the streets over the last six years to support U.S. Border Patrol officers and protest federal immigration policies.
In response to the radio interview, the district was inundated with phone calls Wednesday, Leighty said.
A posting on the Facebook page for the "John & Ken Show" stated that "Temecula High School" canceled hotel reservations and listed the phone number for Temecula Valley High School and the district office.
TVHS receptionist Mary Boyce said her school was flooded with angry calls Wednesday. Great Oak Principal Joe Balleweg said up to 20 calls were received at his campus, as well.