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

The governing board of the Maricopa County Regional School District convenes monthly.

A quorum call is never necessary. And no one ever takes attendance.
The Maricopa County Regional School District Governing Board has only one member: Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools Sandra Dowling.

The Maricopa County Regional School District is a 200-employee, 2,000-student operation with a $10 million annual budget, five school sites and programs all over the county. The district was established by state law, and its mission is to accommodate students who are not eligible to be educated by the county's regular public-schools system. That includes children who live in unincorporated county territory, as well as juveniles who've run afoul of the law, state hospital patients, school dropouts and the homeless.

Most Arizona school boards are required by law to have at least three elected members, and voters can choose to increase that number up to seven. But county regional school districts require only one member. There are no checks and balances.

In the Maricopa County Regional School District, that's a lot of unchecked power for one person, particularly if that one person is the incumbent, Sandra Dowling.

After almost a decade in office, Dowling has more than doubled the district's student population, extending services to thousands of children who had previously fallen through the cracks. For that, she has received a good deal of attention from the local and national press.

Dowling would appear to be doing God's work. But assorted detractors seem to think she's doing Sandra's work. In fact, a close look at Sandra Dowling suggests that she's a laboratory example of unchecked power in government. Maybe state lawmakers should never in the first place have created a school district governed by one person; surely they wouldn't have, if they'd met Sandra Dowling.

Most people aren't aware that the position of Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools exists at all, except at voting time. First elected in 1988, Dowling is serving her third term in office; she's never had a heavily contested high-profile race. But the duties of her office are significant. She has more titles than Prince Charles, and a description of her roles begins to sound like a list of secretariats at the politburo, particularly because Dowling so regularly uses all of her many titles.

Among the more prominent titles she insists on using is "Governing Board" of the school district she runs, presiding over a $10 million budget. The governing board has final authority over personnel matters, district policies and expenditures. She even has the power to create new schools at her own discretion, although that is no easy task since the district can't levy taxes. Therefore, building programs often require raising private funds. Oddly, that puts Dowling's schools in a funding category similar to charter schools.

As superintendent of county schools, she is also in charge of a $1.4 million administrative budget and 30 employees who oversee operations in the county's public-school system. The duties of this post include acting as fiscal agent for some county school districts and filling vacancies on other school boards in the county.

Even her harshest critics point out that Dowling has done a lot of good for the county's students. She's used her power to bulldoze through bureaucratic roadblocks and educate kids no one else seems to care about.

But serious questions have arisen concerning the quality of Dowling's programs, her abilities as an administrator and her self-aggrandizing ways. She sometimes bears more than a passing resemblance to the overbearing Queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, for her heavy-handed style of governing.

The Maricopa County Regional School District has failed to provide federally mandated programs like special education and, in other cases, lied about offering nonmandated programs like vocational education. Attendance, dropout rates and test scores are abysmal; not all teachers are certified, as required by law.

Meanwhile, many of Dowling's staffers are miserable, as she spends her time--and county taxpayer dollars--hiring her children, getting unnecessary advanced degrees for herself and running up her county cellular-phone bill.

Bottom line, whatever Sandra wants, Sandra gets. And that's the problem. The proposed solutions are beginning to stack up.

For one, the voters could boot Dowling out of office, come 2000.
Dowling could hire better administrators, to handle the day-to-day operations of the district. It appears she's done that, with John Durbin, a seasoned administrator who came on board this summer.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors could step in and try to force Dowling to account for her actions.

Or state lawmakers could step in and create a system of controls. A considerable cadre of Dowling's current and former employees has begun moving for a legislative change that would add members to the governing board of all county districts.

And while the movement is just now jelling, leaders have not yet emerged. Representative of those who want legislative change is Nancy Haas, a professor of secondary education at Arizona State University. She has known Dowling for years, and did her sabbatical three years ago at the district's Pappas school. Carefully confining her comments to the notion of creating a multimember board, rather than pointedly criticizing Dowling, Haas says, "I have never understood why the legislation was written for it to be one board member. It just seems to fly in the face of everything this country is built on, a system of checks and balances."

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.

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."

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.

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.

"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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