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

Sandra Dowling refuses to address specific concerns regarding her office. County Attorney Rick Romley has advised her not to, she says, pending resolution of personnel matters currently being looked into by his office. There's also the matter of the upcoming trial in the case of William Dabb and Jerry George, Cartwright School District officials who allegedly tried to bribe Dowling with an offer of a principalship for her husband, in exchange for a key appointment to Cartwright's board.

Romley's office is mum on the subject.
Dowling will say, however, that she likes the status quo.
Sitting on a couch in her private office in the district building earlier this month, Dowling says, "We have a board. I think it functions just fine as it is. If someone wants to change it, why, that's up to them, but it functions very well as it is right now."

Sandra Dowling decided to pursue the job of Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools because it melded two of her interests, education and politics. She'd never held office before, having made an unsuccessful bid for county treasurer in 1984; she had been a schoolteacher and day-care-center owner.

Early in her first term as county schools superintendent, Dowling bragged that she, in effect, was the governor of Maricopa County--elected by all of the voters in the county, instead of a mere district's worth, like members of the Board of Supervisors. It's taken Sandra Dowling nearly a decade to build her empire, but she demanded royal treatment right from the start, quickly falling into coy habits like leaving her car in the street for a minion to park. To this day, she hands her purse to a staffer when she enters a room.

That type of indulgence at the top seems to produce an emotionally charged workplace. Dowling's staffers are polite to her face, but behind her back they complain incessantly. They gossip that she parks in her reserved space in the county's garage and talks on her cell phone for hours. In fact, a recent monthly cellular-phone bill topped $400--including calls to political cronies like Barbara Barrett.

Dowling's staff members blab about each other, too. The county schools office (the superintendent) and district office (the board) could more easily be likened to a decidedly nepotistic set for All My Children than to administrative government offices.

Meet the cast:
Marc Frasier, chief deputy. Frasier does not have a college degree, but he does have a good pedigree, as the son-in-law of Republican party player Ray Russell.

Leslie Hetzer, payroll administrator. Hetzer has had a meteoric rise since coming to the county in 1994. Starting as a receptionist, at $18,000, she now makes almost $30,000. She's an accomplished manicurist and does the boss's nails. Once Hetzer applied Dowling's acrylic nails in the conference room of the county schools office, but the chemical fumes made other employees ill, so the two were forced to hold their manicure sessions outside the office.

Frasier and Hetzer are close friends. So close that some of their co-workers have expressed suspicion they were more than just friends.

Last November, shortly after Dowling's reelection, Frasier called a staff meeting to announce that he and Hetzer were not having an affair.

"Most of us were just embarrassed to be sitting there," grants writer Judy Leiby recalls. "They informed us during the meeting that they loved each other's spirits and that it was a Christian love. And Leslie kept saying, 'I know I've done nothing wrong.'"

Judy Leiby, grants writer. Leiby and Dowling worked together closely while Leiby was director of constituent services for now-retired senator Dennis DeConcini, and Dowling was trying to get her son, Dennis, a Naval Academy appointment. (DeConcini gave Dennis Dowling the highest possible recommendation, but, in the end, he was not admitted. Sandra Dowling has long maintained that Senator John McCain queered the deal--as part of an ongoing feud between Dowling and the McCain/Governor Fife Symington camp--but she has no proof.)

Charlie Hetzer, husband of Leslie. This Hetzer's career is on the fast track, too. Once a P.E. coach at a private school, Hetzer was hired at a generous $42,000, first as director of special projects for the Maricopa County Regional School District, then, a month later, as instructional-material coordinator for East Valley High School.

Last month, he was named assistant principal for West Valley High School, and given a $1,000 raise. He does not have proper certification, although he's working on it.

John Leiby, son of Judy. Judy Leiby says Marc Frasier requested that her son apply for a teaching position. Frasier says Judy Leiby asked Dowling to hire her son. (Dowling's not saying.)

John Leiby has a Ph.D. in history and political science--and years of experience teaching at the college level--but little to no experience with at-risk youths. Nevertheless, he was hired in 1996 to teach at-risk 7-12 graders at Estrella Mountain School, on the Gila River Indian Reservation.

He was placed on medical leave last March, after his mother brought him to a hospital emergency room because he could not stop shaking. The diagnosis: posttraumatic stress disorder, caused, according to reports Leiby filed with the school, by the abuse he says he suffered in the classroom, including being hit in the head with a racketball and having an inflated condom popped near his eardrum.

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