By Amy Silverman
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County schools chief Sandra Dowling once called herself the governor of Maricopa County--after all, she was elected by all the people of the county, rather than county supervisors, who were voted into office by a mere district's worth.
The title "governor" may be stretching it a bit, but Dowling does reign over a $10 million school district and $1.4 million administrative office. As the sole board member of the Maricopa County Regional School District, she's in charge of thousands of students and hundreds of employees.
Now, thanks to the Arizona State Legislature, Dowling may be getting more power than ever. At Dowling's behest, Republican Representative Jim Weiers, who represents the Glendale district where Dowling lives, has introduced three bills that--if passed--would give county schools superintendents added responsibilities.
That is ironic, given Dowling's critics' call for a limit on her power. Last year, a group of Dowling's current and former employees called on the Legislature to create a multiperson school board ("Board Games," August 28, 1997).
No such legislation ever came to pass. But Weiers has introduced the following:
* House Bill 2275 addresses charter-school financing. Tucked away in the next to the last paragraph is an addition: "At the request of a charter school, the county school superintendent of the county where the charter school is located may provide . . . educational services to the charter school . . ."
* House Bill 2276 expands the county schools superintendents' role to include providing services to school districts in: planning and research, staff development, instruction and curriculum, assessment and evaluation and educational technology.
* House Bill 2278 places school districts with student counts under 1,000 under the control of the county schools superintendent, rather than an independent superintendent hired by the district.
About 116 school districts statewide would be affected by HB2278. Sixteen of those districts are in Maricopa County, and thus would fall under Dowling's purview.
HB2275 has passed the House, and awaits hearing in the Senate. Neither of the other bills has made it out of the House. At Dowling's recommendation, Weiers also introduced HB2277, which would compensate school board members $500 annually; county schools superintendents would be exempt from that.
David Oboyski, Dowling's director of communications, says Dowling and her executive assistant, Dick Bryce, presented Weiers with sample legislation for the four bills.
Marc Frazier, chief deputy for Maricopa County schools, says he's not surprised that some people think Dowling's making a power play. He explains the rationale behind the bills: "Some of the small school districts and some of the charter schools need some kind of regional service help. . . . If they were able to use a pool of services, it would be a little bit less expensive for each of them individually."
That doesn't answer Connie Comprone's questions. Last summer, Comprone, a teacher at the Maricopa County Regional Schools District, approached her state senator, Glendale Republican John Kaites, regarding her concern about Dowling's power. Comprone met with Kaites and Chandler Republican Senator John Huppenthal, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
She says she was told of two options: They could introduce legislation to create a multiperson board, or each county supervisor could appoint a representative to a board that would make decisions in concert with Dowling.
Neither proposal ever went anywhere, as far as Comprone knows. She says she called Kaites and Huppenthal repeatedly after her meeting, but her calls were never returned.
Neither Kaites nor Weiers returned calls seeking comment.
Comprone, who says she's been punished for speaking out, doesn't intend to shut up.
Of Dowling, she says, "The woman is just out of control."
Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: email@example.com