Townsel-ectomy

Controversy--often racially charged--has been a constant companion of school administrator Charles Townsel. Now his job is on the line again and people in South Phoenix are choosing up sides.

The intersection of Seventh Street and Southern Avenue in South Phoenix is busy at dusk. Drivers race to get home to dinner and leave the problems of the workday behind.

This particular Wednesday in February is no different, except for the cars filling the lot at the headquarters of the Roosevelt Elementary School District.

A few people mingle outside the building. Inside, anticipation has squelched conversation to whispers.

The predominantly black faces turn and quietly exchange snippets of information, each sharing a tidbit heard from another. The volume inside picks up slowly as the crowd swells to fill the neat rows of straight-back chairs.

The people wait much longer than the 30 minutes the school board is supposed to be in executive session. They grow fidgety and their whispers grow to a roar of socializing.

One man passes out handmade yellow signs. Another woman moves from row to row, greeting most of the people in the room.

And while this impromptu reception works toward a crescendo, Dr. Charles Townsel works the crowd, shaking hands, patting backs, meeting each with a personal greeting, and tilting his head back in an occasional, hearty laugh.

His dark suit sets off the gray in his hair and the shine of his gold-rimmed glasses. He has all the polish of a politician at a rally. He is articulate, charismatic and has a gift for saying what people want to hear.

Townsel is an administrator in the Roosevelt district, and he's the reason everyone has gathered for what might otherwise be a routine personnel matter.

Townsel is in his element, because controversial personnel matters have been the hallmark of his career as an educator. He has often counted on supporters to confront those who would persecute him.

The five solemn school board members file into the room to take their places.

Audience members quietly raise signs that read, "Dr.Townsel Has Our Support." Children hold their own placards reading, "We Love Dr. Townsel."

They are parents, they are employees and they are members of the local NAACP, where Townsel is chairman of the education committee.

Danny Ortega, the school district's attorney, reads a laundry list of sins allegedly committed by Townsel. The sins constitute fraud and they are the reason Townsel is also the subject of an investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

The Roosevelt School District alleges that between April and November of 1994, Townsel:

* Billed the district for a coupon book of airline tickets, most of which were used for personal trips and first-class upgrades.

* Exchanged expensive tickets purchased by the district for cheaper flights and kept the difference.

* Claimed professional leave and billed the district for travel expenses for meetings and conferences he did not attend.

The alleged misdeeds involve only about $1,750, which is not a lot in the grand scheme of fraud. It's certainly less than the $5,000 in legal fees the district has incurred to prepare charges against Townsel.

But in the Roosevelt School District, $1,750 could almost buy one child's education for a year.

After the charges are read, Townsel takes the podium, turns the microphone and addresses not the school board but the audience.

"I have not violated any board policy or state law," Townsel says. "I was not given an opportunity to explain any charges brought against me."

In fact, a January 17 letter to Townsel from Ortega invited him to do just that.

No matter. Townsel is just warming up.
"Seems to me that is a lynching job," he says, directing his comments toward Superintendent John Baracy, who is Anglo and who is, no doubt, keenly aware that the last two superintendents who tangled with Townsel are no longer on the job.

Finally, Townsel closes with, "Thank all of you for coming out and supporting me and God bless all of you."

The audience members are with him. They're clapping. They're ready to run to the podium. They're not happy to hear that they won't be allowed to speak.

The Reverend George Brooks, who has been on this school board for more than 20 years, assures all that he has "a great many questions," but that "we shall have a full-scale trial."

Brooks casts the only dissenting vote as the board decides to file a formal Statement of Charges against Townsel and put him on paid leave from his $67,000-a-year position for 30 days.

Roosevelt policy dictates that Townsel may request a full-scale hearing on the matter during that time, and it's assumed that he will.

The meeting is over, but the action has just begun.
Public education is nothing if not passionately political. Roosevelt--a school district with mostly minority students and with low property wealth and high tax rates--is also South Phoenix's largest employer. Personnel issues have led to the demise of many a superintendent and school board member. Racial, political and personal vendettas play out in spectacles--microcosms of public education's turmoil.

Now, after two years of relative quiet from the ethnic politics, scandal and financial turmoil that rocked this district in the past, Roosevelt is gripped by the fear that the turmoil is about to return.

The issue at hand, that of Townsel's wrongdoing, is supposed to be about money. But if the district's history is any indication, it's likely to be about race and politics and a whole lot of other things.

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