SHE'S NOT THEIR CUP OF TEA

ONLY IN THE MADISON SCHOOL DISTRICT COULD A PERSONAL SQUABBLE END UP IN COURT

After hearing so many monstrous things about Carolyne Berry, seeing her is a letdown. Watching the Madison School District board member fidget through a meeting, it's difficult to imagine how she came to be the object of so much ire.

She doesn't look much different from the rest of the board or most of the parents who generally attend Madison School Board meetings: light-brown, bobbed hair, tasteful jewelry, reading glasses perched on her nose as she makes her way through piles of documents.

But make no mistake--Berry has single-handedly unified a significant portion of her constituents. They are unified in their disdain for her.

Her detractors--many of them members of the Junior League of Phoenix--have worked zealously to portray her in an unflattering light. She has been accused of browbeating Madison teachers and staff, of disrupting board meetings with confrontational questions and negative comments, of driving fellow board members out of public service, of using the letterhead of her husband's law firm to threaten and intimidate her foes.

When her board colleagues sought to have her investigated and possibly censured, she sued them--and won.

That might sound like spirited gamesmanship, but such hardball tactics don't sit well in the exclusive Madison School District, where civility is next to godliness.

When the Madison School Board met in early January to elect officers, Berry was long overdue to serve as president. She has seven years' experience--far more than the other four members. But Berry isn't president. Never has been president. Never will be.

Her enemies wouldn't allow it. They are long on complaints and short on substance. Her indiscretions are never actionable. So she stands accused of--well, of being bitchy.

Madison Elementary School District No. 38 is a place in which public officials, high-powered lawyers, a trained theologian and the president-elect of the Junior League throw the book at one another and send the bill--$33,000 and counting--to the schoolchildren of Arizona.

The district is one of the oldest in the Valley, and normally one of the quietest. By design. With territory reaching into some of the wealthier pockets of north-central Phoenix, the district's schools educate the children of prominent doctors, barristers and community leaders with an air of efficiency and gentility.

"Madison," says the school district's attorney, Charlie Herf, "has been a very sophisticated district."
Sophisticated and nice. If there's a disagreement about school governance, it's usually settled quietly and properly. Since 1990, 14 recall elections have been held in Maricopa County school districts. District officials say there's never been a recall election in Madison. Emotional confrontations are rare.

So when parents began to grouse about the conduct of board member Carolyne Berry, Herf says, the district and board devised a way to "avoid the kind of publicity that other districts have gotten because they'd had exchanges between board members at public meetings and some conduct that wouldn't be considered civilized in Madison."

The school board hatched what has become known as the Procedure, voting unanimously to grant itself the right to investigate and censure its own members. But when the board tried to investigate Berry, she sued. A Superior Court judge ruled in her favor.

This costly imbroglio has simmered in a district that was forced to cut its 1993 budget by more than $325,000--eliminating such frills as K-4 art, early and late bus runs and districtwide sports. This year, in anticipation of further cuts, the board is considering increasing class sizes, eliminating assistant principals and cutting back on librarians and nurses.

Nonetheless, three of the board's five members--Paul Harter, Laurel Ann Karpman and Bob Foster--have voted to pursue an appeal of the ruling in Berry's lawsuit. They justify their decision by noting that most of the legal tab has been picked up by a trust that gets its money from school districts around the state.

Legal heavyweights have taken sides. Berry's got her husband, insurance attorney Rick Berry, and Roxana Bacon, an attorney with Bryan Cave. Both are providing their services pro bono.

Representing the board is the district's attorney, Charlie Herf of Quarles & Brady. Don Gaffney of Snell & Wilmer and Tom Pickrell, legal counsel to the Arizona School Boards Association, are backing the board as well.

With the exception of Herf, all of these attorneys happen to be parents of Madison students.

Tim Hogan, director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest--also a parent of a Madison student--has watched from the sidelines.

"I think we all like to have this feeling that, gee, if only we were running things--either in Washington, D.C., or at the state level or at the city level--things would somehow be a lot better," Hogan says. "If we can't handle running our school districts and our schools through the friends and neighbors that we elect, I'm a little less optimistic about the future."
A Phoenix native, Carolyne Berry graduated from Central High School and Arizona State University. Then, she says, she left for Los Angeles to teach. Seven years later, she returned, married Rick Berry and settled in central Phoenix. She works as an assistant in her husband's law firm. The Berrys have two daughters in Madison schools. Berry wants people to know she's connected. In the first five minutes of conversation, she drops the names of former governor Jack Williams and the Babbitt family. She knows every Democrat in town, she says.

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