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

"Bryce has been a friend and adviser of hers ever since she's been in office," Parker says.

Bryce's official job description is assistant to the superintendent, but he's also widely recognized as Dowling's latest "purse holder."

When territorial lawmakers created the position of Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools, they could not have imagined that one day the person in that office would be in charge of hundreds of employees, thousands of students and millions of dollars.

Ten million dollars and an autocrat with no real accountability add up to a potent combination. Oversight is a component of virtually every other government body in the state, except for the Maricopa County Regional School District Governing Board. Almost everyone who knows the particulars agrees that some sort of control over the county schools should be put in place.

Individuals differ over what exactly should be done.
Ultimately, responsibility rests with the voters, who in the past have taken little or no interest in the position--if they even know it exists. But ignorance isn't limited to the general public. The spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education had no idea Sandra Dowling was her own school board. And the lawmakers interviewed for this story uniformly protested that they were similarly uninformed.

Hence, the movement on the part of Dowling's current and former employees--the only ones, it seems, who understand the ramifications of her power.

Sandra Dowling maintains that a change in the law creating additional positions on the Maricopa County Regional School Board would be a monumental undertaking. She believes it would require a change in statute, a change in the state constitution and, probably, county voters' approval.

No, says Senator John Huppenthal, chairman of the Arizona Legislature's Senate Education Committee. Just a simple change in statute. Huppenthal says he is not familiar with the issue and has no opinion on whether the law should be changed.

West Valley High School teacher Connie Comprone has already approached one of her legislators, Senator John Kaites, about the possibility.

Kaites, who has not yet met with Comprone, says he hasn't yet researched the subject enough to offer an opinion. "Obviously, the highest goal here is the best education possible for the kids that are under the jurisdiction of the accommodation district," he says. "And that might mean a board system and it might mean the status quo, and I don't know the answer of that question until I spend some time."

Comprone is scheduled to meet with Kaites and Huppenthal August 28. Meanwhile, Kaites asked a Senate staffer to research the subject. A memo from Kaites' researcher says that technically, the county Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction over the schools superintendent, but that school officials in both Maricopa and Pima counties report, "the county board of supervisors have never taken an active role in the operation of the accommodation school district."

The researcher makes a key observation as to why politicians have largely ignored accommodation schools. He writes, "These students don't have many advocates which may make it difficult to expand the school governing board."

George Jeffers, a professor at Arizona State University, says five is the most common number of school-board members across the country. "That generally is seen as providing a representation of different areas of the constituents, so all constituent needs are fully met by the board, because the board in turn should be responsible to the public," he says.

Jeffers says other states, including California, have accommodation school districts similar to Maricopa County's, but they have multiperson boards.

Robert Trujillo says he'd like to see a multiperson board that includes representatives from both the east and west sides of the Valley.

John Durbin, for one, says he sees no need for more board members, offering himself up as a sort of silver bullet. He says he's going to control nepotism and cut unnecessary spending. Test scores will go up, teachers will be certified and special education will be provided.

Indeed, observers say the district has already turned around in Durbin's few weeks in service.

"I'm kind of observing things. It won't be a problem, because I won't let it be a problem. I have a very strong sense of ethics, and I'm just not going to let that kind of thing go on here."

But what if Governing Board Dowling doesn't approve?
"Then I guess I won't work here," Durbin says.
And that--the prospect of right-thinking administrators continuing to depart in frustration--says ASU's Nancy Haas, is why a multimember board is needed. It won't cure all the district's problems--or check all of Dowling's power--but it would be a step in the right direction, says Haas.

Meanwhile, Dowling remains opposed to more board members.
And Haas wonders, "I can't imagine why anybody would be opposed to adding more board members, unless they really and clearly were on a power trip.

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