Master of Her Domain

County schools chief Dowling is still a one-woman school board

Maricopa County schools chief Sandra Dowling has been on a power trip for 11 years, and only two groups can stop her: the Arizona Legislature or the electorate.

I hope someone is successful -- and soon. But if history is an indication, Dowling will continue on indefinitely. In her three elections for the Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools post, she's never had a strong opponent. County officials ignore her. And legislators, who could curb her power, are afraid of a political hot potato.

Most people consider the position of county schools superintendent a dubious job. You appoint people to fill a few school board vacancies, maybe review some test scores, drop by some schools. Not a lot of prestige. But most people don't realize that the county superintendent wears two hats: one as superintendent, the other as the sole board member of the Maricopa County Regional School District, which runs alternative schools.

During her time in office, Sandra Dowling has turned that second hat into a crown. She's queen of all she surveys, and her turf is not insignificant. While other school boards have at least three members, Dowling reigns supreme over dozens of employees, hundreds of students and a $14 million budget.

Political scientists should apply for grants to study this woman: She is a rare example of an autocrat thriving in American government, a Petri dish of violations of the public trust, unchecked.

A few years back, I catalogued some of Dowling's less becoming actions ("Board Games," August 28, 1997), which included nepotism, salary inequities, frivolous hirings, and her use of county funds to earn an unnecessary degree. Much of what was going on in the office was not technically illegal, but it was improper, and Dowling had sole discretion over all of it. And there were questions of legality, too: The state Attorney General's Office launched an investigation into consulting trips Dowling took at county expense.

Dowling declined a request for an interview.

Experts and observers interviewed for "Board Games" suggested that the Arizona Legislature change the law to require county school districts to have multiple-person boards.

But state Senator John Huppenthal, a Chandler Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, disagreed. He told me he had met with Dowling a few times, and she assured him she would survey employees, improve morale, clean up her act.

Two and a half years later, not much has changed at Dowling's shop.

The attorney general's investigation into Dowling's office is ongoing. At least one member of Dowling's family, her son Dennis, still works for the district. Last year, many district employees got a small (a couple of percentage points) raise. Yet two employees cozy with Dowling, assistant Dick Bryce (Dowling's right-hand man, often referred to as the guy who carries her purse) and personnel director Rexanne Meredith (wife of Jim, of AzScam fame), received raises of more than $10,000 each.

And last month, a national homelessness think tank released a study questioning the validity of Dowling's pet project, the Thomas J. Pappas school for the homeless.

Huppenthal says he's never seen results of the employee surveys Dowling told him she would conduct; he admits he's not sure they exist. He's spoken with state Senator Tom Smith, a Scottsdale Republican and former member of the Scottsdale School Board, about finally introducing legislation that would create a multiple-person board for the county district.

Huppenthal says he's more receptive to the idea now. Easy for him to say. He's leaving the Senate to run for Congress this fall. So the task falls to Smith, who vows to work on the legislation over the summer.

Smith says he knows of nothing Dowling has done that breaks the law, per se, but he's concerned after speaking with former district employees who catalogued possible misdeeds. "I think one person can certainly abuse their power with no problem," he says.

Any legislation Smith introduces won't be considered until January 2001. Before then, Dowling must face reelection.

So far, it looks like the typically easy road for her. Dowling's only opposition to date is Tim Redburn, who has taught in the Regional School District for more than 20 years. I spoke with Redburn from his farm in the west Valley, where he was installing an irrigation ditch during his spring break. He is earnest and has some good ideas about increasing the district's vocational education programs, but Redburn is a political and administrative novice. And he's a Democrat in a heavily Republican county. He's not even sure he can get the 40,000 signatures required to get on the ballot.

He's also unwilling to criticize Dowling -- at all -- making it difficult to expect voters to choose him over the experienced incumbent.

"I don't get into ups and downs and fights and ins and outs," Redburn says, although he admits, "I know some of the things that she's done because I've been there for so long."

All he'll say is: "She's unchallenged over the years and I want to challenge that office, and I think I can do the job."

Admirable? Yes. Promising? No.

The woman who should be challenging Dowling isn't. Her name is Althie Wood and she worked for the Regional School District for six years.

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