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

Dowling first took office in 1989, about the same time Williams Air Force Base shut down. Anticipating a huge loss of students, she kept the base's school open, creating East Valley High and shifting the focus from military kids to dropouts.

Although at times over the years the county schools superintendent had catered to "special needs" children, Dowling's move was a real shift of gears. She went on to help start the homeless school and another "second chance" high school and, as charter schools loomed on the horizon, began a campaign to market the schools, looking for more students and the government money that came with them.

Art Parker, the district's personnel director, has worked for the office since 1984. He says things have improved dramatically since Dowling took office.

"From where the county school office was when she came on board, it's significantly reached out and gotten a whole lot better," he says.

Another employee, who requested anonymity, says, "I don't know if a governing board could create something like Sandra's created. Maybe it takes an autocrat to do what she's done."

"Autocrat" is one of the nicer words people use to describe Sandra Dowling's management style.

Grants writer Judy Leiby says, "As far as I'm concerned, it's by intimidation, and I think there's hundreds of people that will bear that out."

Certainly more than a few do. Dozens of current and former employees, as well as longtime observers of Maricopa County government, describe Dowling as a self-serving publicity seeker, more interested in getting jobs for her family and friends and getting her own moment in the spotlight than in helping poor children.

A former employee--who asked not to be named--says she was hired at the Pappas school as a teacher's aide. Eventually, she was promoted to head of donations, tours and publicity for the school. In that position, she and one of the homeless children were invited to appear on Oprah, by some producers visiting the school.

And so began the woman's demise in the employ of Sandra Dowling. Dowling demanded the woman call the producers--to get Dowling invited on the show.

She told the producers, "Listen, if she can't go, we can't go."
"So they basically called Oprah," she recalls, "and Oprah basically said, 'Hey, I'm not being told who to have on my show by anybody. If she wants to come and pay her own way, she can go.'"

And that's what happened. The woman says that on the way back to the Chicago airport, bound for home, Dowling gave her a funny look, and she knew her gig was up. Upon returning to Phoenix, the former employee was told that she could no longer see the public or speak to the press. She was told to go back to the classroom, as a teacher's aide.

So she quit.
Art Parker's comment: "Sandra went. And that's as it should be. She's responsible for the program."

Parker views his boss's style as "aggressive. She's gutsy. She'll take on anybody. And that in itself is worthwhile."

Dowling has private offices at both the county schools office and district office. The new district office, being built near the Pappas school, includes an office with a private bathroom for the governing-board member, an unusual flourish for a school-board member anywhere.

Dowling has taken full advantage of the perks associated with holding public office.

Consider the following:
While in office, Dowling completed her master's and doctoral degrees in education and administration. The county paid for at least $2,200 in tuition and book reimbursements--even though the county schools superintendent only needs a teaching certificate.

Once Dowling got her doctorate, she wasted no time in requesting an opinion from the county attorney, regarding the rules of starting her own consulting business. With the Ed.D. she soon became a contender for lucrative posts elsewhere. She was a finalist for a state superintendent position in Alabama in 1995, a job that would have paid between $120,000 and $165,000. Not bad, considering Dowling only made $42,000 at the time. Her salary was raised last year to $46,000.

Dowling's office is a more-than-equal-opportunity employer for her own relatives and those of her cronies.

Leslie and Charlie Hetzer. Judy Leiby and John Leiby. Former East Valley High principal Joe Procopio had three family members working for the district. Candy Steill, Dowling's executive assistant, has had at least two.

The most noteworthy, of course, are the Dowlings on the list. Dowling's son, Dennis Jr., is on the list, as well as her daughter, Erin.

Dennis has worked full-time for the district since fall 1996. He was recently transferred from East Valley High to West Valley, since it's closer to his home, personnel head Parker says.

Any problems associated with hiring one's children?
"Nothing wrong with it," Parker says. Certainly nothing illegal, at least. "A governing board cannot hire the spouse of a governing-board member. A governing board may hire the dependent of the governing board, by a majority vote of the governing board. It's funny, of course. We only have one vote."

Another relatively recent hire at the district is Dick Bryce, former chief of staff to former Maricopa County supervisor Ed King. Parker says without apology that the hire was purely political.

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