Board Games

Maricopa County schools chief Sandra Dowling plays to win--of course, as a governing board of one, she doesn't have much competition

The governing board of the Maricopa County Regional School District convenes monthly.

A quorum call is never necessary. And no one ever takes attendance.
The Maricopa County Regional School District Governing Board has only one member: Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools Sandra Dowling.

The Maricopa County Regional School District is a 200-employee, 2,000-student operation with a $10 million annual budget, five school sites and programs all over the county. The district was established by state law, and its mission is to accommodate students who are not eligible to be educated by the county's regular public-schools system. That includes children who live in unincorporated county territory, as well as juveniles who've run afoul of the law, state hospital patients, school dropouts and the homeless.

Most Arizona school boards are required by law to have at least three elected members, and voters can choose to increase that number up to seven. But county regional school districts require only one member. There are no checks and balances.

In the Maricopa County Regional School District, that's a lot of unchecked power for one person, particularly if that one person is the incumbent, Sandra Dowling.

After almost a decade in office, Dowling has more than doubled the district's student population, extending services to thousands of children who had previously fallen through the cracks. For that, she has received a good deal of attention from the local and national press.

Dowling would appear to be doing God's work. But assorted detractors seem to think she's doing Sandra's work. In fact, a close look at Sandra Dowling suggests that she's a laboratory example of unchecked power in government. Maybe state lawmakers should never in the first place have created a school district governed by one person; surely they wouldn't have, if they'd met Sandra Dowling.

Most people aren't aware that the position of Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools exists at all, except at voting time. First elected in 1988, Dowling is serving her third term in office; she's never had a heavily contested high-profile race. But the duties of her office are significant. She has more titles than Prince Charles, and a description of her roles begins to sound like a list of secretariats at the politburo, particularly because Dowling so regularly uses all of her many titles.

Among the more prominent titles she insists on using is "Governing Board" of the school district she runs, presiding over a $10 million budget. The governing board has final authority over personnel matters, district policies and expenditures. She even has the power to create new schools at her own discretion, although that is no easy task since the district can't levy taxes. Therefore, building programs often require raising private funds. Oddly, that puts Dowling's schools in a funding category similar to charter schools.

As superintendent of county schools, she is also in charge of a $1.4 million administrative budget and 30 employees who oversee operations in the county's public-school system. The duties of this post include acting as fiscal agent for some county school districts and filling vacancies on other school boards in the county.

Even her harshest critics point out that Dowling has done a lot of good for the county's students. She's used her power to bulldoze through bureaucratic roadblocks and educate kids no one else seems to care about.

But serious questions have arisen concerning the quality of Dowling's programs, her abilities as an administrator and her self-aggrandizing ways. She sometimes bears more than a passing resemblance to the overbearing Queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, for her heavy-handed style of governing.

The Maricopa County Regional School District has failed to provide federally mandated programs like special education and, in other cases, lied about offering nonmandated programs like vocational education. Attendance, dropout rates and test scores are abysmal; not all teachers are certified, as required by law.

Meanwhile, many of Dowling's staffers are miserable, as she spends her time--and county taxpayer dollars--hiring her children, getting unnecessary advanced degrees for herself and running up her county cellular-phone bill.

Bottom line, whatever Sandra wants, Sandra gets. And that's the problem. The proposed solutions are beginning to stack up.

For one, the voters could boot Dowling out of office, come 2000.
Dowling could hire better administrators, to handle the day-to-day operations of the district. It appears she's done that, with John Durbin, a seasoned administrator who came on board this summer.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors could step in and try to force Dowling to account for her actions.

Or state lawmakers could step in and create a system of controls. A considerable cadre of Dowling's current and former employees has begun moving for a legislative change that would add members to the governing board of all county districts.

And while the movement is just now jelling, leaders have not yet emerged. Representative of those who want legislative change is Nancy Haas, a professor of secondary education at Arizona State University. She has known Dowling for years, and did her sabbatical three years ago at the district's Pappas school. Carefully confining her comments to the notion of creating a multimember board, rather than pointedly criticizing Dowling, Haas says, "I have never understood why the legislation was written for it to be one board member. It just seems to fly in the face of everything this country is built on, a system of checks and balances."

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