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

One day, he says, during a current-affairs project on China, the students went "berserk," turning off the lights and tossing objects across the room.

"The last thing that I remember was the globe," Leiby says of the world globe that konked him in the head. He believes he may have neurological damage as a result.

John Leiby's teaching contract was not renewed. Frasier, who signed the letter explaining why, cited derogatory comments Leiby allegedly made about another district employee, as well as an allegation of physical force against a student. (Leiby denies the latter charge.)

Leiby appealed to the state Industrial Commission. A recent hearing was canceled; Leiby says he's not allowed to comment further.

Around the same time her son left the district, Judy Leiby was transferred from the county to the district payroll, and her pay was decreased slightly.

From week to week, the details change, but, like any soap opera worth its suds, similarly dicey antics are always in the script.

Maricopa County Regional School District's local press almost always takes the form of glowing praise for the Thomas J. Pappas school for homeless children. The school's new building is due to open September 8, with great fanfare.

At the same time, the district's other four schools will reconvene: Estrella Mountain School, a K-12 facility for the children of the Gila River Indian Reservation; East Valley Middle School; and East Valley and West Valley high schools, both "second chance" schools targeting 16-to-21-year-old dropouts.

The story at those facilities is not as happy as at the Pappas school. Test scores are too low. Administrative budgets are too high. Teachers are not certified. Dropout rates and disciplinary referrals are through the roof. The state is yanking money from the district, because its programs such as vocational education don't comply with state and federal regulations.

And staff turnover has been explosive: In its seven-year history, even the heralded Pappas school has had six principals; in its 10 years, Estrella Mountain has had five.

Sandra Dowling holds the title of county schools superintendent and governing board member for the regional school district, but she also hires a superintendent to run the district's day-to-day business. Earlier this year, the superintendent resigned without clear explanation; later, the principals of both East Valley and West Valley high schools left in frustration.

Former West Valley principal Robert Trujillo blames Dowling for his decision to quit. Trujillo started the school four years ago, and was deeply immersed in it, but became disillusioned when Dowling made autocratic decisions regarding school start dates and teacher pay. Instead of giving in, Trujillo gave up and resigned in June.

Trujillo says Dowling likes to brag that her district ranks first in pay for starting teachers, now up to $30,000. But the top end of the pay scale is about the same as at other districts. He says that's unfair to experienced staffers, and when he tried to argue that point, he was shut down.

"These people are not being compensated the way that it would be fair, because she just decided for whatever reason what it's gonna be," Trujillo says.

Trujillo opposed Dowling's decision to start school later in the year than other schools in the county. Dowling says she did it to pick up students who drop out of other schools early in the year. Trujillo argues that it just didn't make sense. He believes West Valley should start at the same time as other area schools, so that families are synchronized for child care.

Trujillo says, "I was not afraid that I would not have numbers, or anything else. We've always had a waiting list. We've always done very well."

Connie Comprone, who is still employed as a teacher at West Valley, echoes Trujillo's sentiments. She loves the school, but has become enormously frustrated in her four years there.

Her complaint, Comprone says, stems from the way issues like that one are dealt with at the top.

She says, "The pay issue, the starting date of the school, safety concerns, they all hit a brick wall once they get to Dowling."

Ironically, Dowling shoots herself in the foot by failing to keep professional staff. Trujillo and Joe Procopio, the former East Valley principal, have both started charter schools and are actively recruiting her students.

John Durbin, a school administrator for almost two decades, closing in on retirement, was named district superintendent a few weeks ago. In his "Board Update No. 1," addressed to the "Governing Board"--comical, since it's really just a memo to Dowling--Durbin, with some consternation, delivers his first official assessment of his new mission: The district does not have enough certified teachers; the district has no special-education program, which is mandated by federal law; test scores are very low.

And, he tells Dowling, after reviewing expenditures for the 1996-97 school years, "I was amazed at the amount of money spent on travel, cellular-phone service and miscellaneous equipment and supplies."

Specifically, he cites $37,000 spent on brochures and business cards, and concludes, "In essence, we are two (2) weeks into the new school year and have spent $50,000 on marketing materials out of the district administration budget. This causes me grave concern."

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