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

Another recent memo generated in the district is cause for concern, too. In August, Estrella Mountain principal Janice Augente reported to Dowling that the school currently has a daily absentee rate of 24 percent, with upper grades as high as 41 percent; an average annual dropout rate of 37 percent; and, during the last school year, "a total of 307 disciplinary referrals for verbal abuse, threats and intimidation, drug use, weapons and physical assaults."

The Arizona Department of Education reports that districts in Maricopa and Pima counties have an average absentee rate of about 6 percent.

In the area of vocational education, the district's state and federal funding level has gone from more than $165,000 in 1995 to zero for the current school year, after the Arizona Department of Education determined that the district has no vocational-education program.

However, that's not what prospective students are told. A brochure promoting Estrella Mountain promises that the school "continues to develop and expand its strong vocational education and school-to-work transition programs."

Durbin admits that the brochure, produced before he came aboard but since the state withdrew funding, is incorrect. He says the state's decision to yank funding is a disagreement over semantics--the state wants a vocational education "program," and calls Estrella Mountain's offerings "classes." The district is working to reinstate vocational education, although Durbin says it's not a high priority.

In another funding snafu, the district dawdled for two years in establishing a program to educate juvenile detainees in the Maricopa County Jail. Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office snapped up the money--a grant for $150,000--and is now providing the program.

Possibly most troubling of all the problems facing Maricopa County Regional School District is its noncompliance with federal laws mandating special-education services. The law requires public educators to assess each student's needs and determine if special-education services are needed. Usually that means kids who have learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder or dyslexia; on the other side of the spectrum, it includes the developmentally disabled. Durbin says that was never done at East Valley and West Valley high schools until earlier this year, even though those schools had been in operation for years.

Durbin says that, in an effort to circumvent the law, the high schools were turning back kids who qualified for special education. If a parent insisted that a child attend one of the schools, administrators asked the parent to waive his child's right to special-education services.

Arizona Department of Education officials say that is illegal. Durbin agrees.

"That wouldn't hold up in a court of law," he says. "You can't waive your right. We provide free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Now, a parent can always say, 'I waive my right to have special ed.' That paper doesn't mean squat. Parents can't waive their right to do that."

When asked why East Valley and West Valley hadn't provided special education until last spring, Durbin says, "We don't have an athletic program. We don't have a sophisticated fine-arts program. We don't have a real great elective program. Basically, this is a school for kids who have dropped out of the system. We need to focus on basics."

But for a population of dropouts--most of whom likely have learning disabilities--what could be more basic than special-education services?

Durbin sheepishly admits that the school's population probably has a much higher percentage of kids qualifying for special education than an average county high school.

Patti Likens, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education, says department officials--charged with monitoring special-education programs for the feds--did not notice the discrepancy, which dates from 1989, until 1996. State and Maricopa County Regional School District officials are working to resolve the problem, Likens says.

Durbin has been busily hiring special-education teachers, and hopes to qualify for federal funding specifically for such programs by next year.

Back before Arizona was even a state, the legislators who created the position of Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools saw it as a job for a CPA. The main task of the original superintendent was to act as fiscal agent of the county's school districts and to provide education to the scant population that lived outside local school districts.

In 1941, the tiny Horse Mesa school was built for the children of the workers who built Roosevelt Dam. Another accommodation school served the kids of the workers at Vulture Mine, near Wickenburg. In addition, county accommodation schools operated on Indian territory and military bases, and the county superintendent had the task of providing education in juvenile detention centers and the state hospital.

Over the years, bigger school districts took responsibility for their own money management. Today, the superintendent's office handles money for just a few small districts, and tends to other tasks, like filling vacancies on other school boards in the county. The area where the job has expanded most is in providing educational programs. And in Dowling's administration, that has meant a considerable growth in her power.

Until Dowling, the county schools superintendent's office was little more than a bully pulpit. The programs mainly existed for children on military bases and Indian reservations. Dowling's predecessor, Richard Harris, held office for 20 years. Harris paid less attention to his governing-board duties, and more to expressing his unusual opinions regarding education: He believed, for example, that too much public money was ruining public education.

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