An "F" for Effort

Sandra Dowling left a huge mess. Now she's trying to stop the cleanup

You might think a public official facing 13 felony counts would be maintaining a low profile, huddling with her lawyer, and trying to figure out a way to avoid prison.

Not Sandra Dowling.

Never mind the laundry list of charges that the longtime Maricopa County Schools superintendent faces in Superior Court. Or the fact that a judge has barred her from continuing to run her district while she waits for trial — and that the three people managing the schools in her stead have found enough problems to occupy them for years.

Shouldn?t this woman be persona non grata?
Martha Strachan
Shouldn?t this woman be persona non grata?
Sandra Dowling and her supporters have campaigned to keep the school for homeless kids open — as evidenced by this sign on campus last summer.
Sandra Dowling and her supporters have campaigned to keep the school for homeless kids open — as evidenced by this sign on campus last summer.

With Sandra Dowling, you can forget about a hair shirt. These days, the embattled politician has been spending her time at the state Capitol, lobbying.

Not lobbying for money for her old district, mind you. Instead, Dowling has been fighting off a much-needed effort to reform the system that let her run amok in the first place.

Only in Arizona, kids.

For decades, school districts like Maricopa County's have been virtual dictatorships. Superintendents like Dowling are elected, often with little opposition, and then answer to no one: They're literally a one-person governing board. That's the way the law is written, and past legislative efforts to change it have failed. No wonder Dowling thought she could get away with hiring virtually her entire family — and, more importantly, running the district into the ground, even while smiling big for the cameras.

So State Representative Mark Anderson, a Mesa Republican, introduced a bill earlier this year to mandate that school boards, whether elected or appointed, be set up to oversee county superintendents. Great idea, except Dowling managed to squash it. The word at the Capitol is that Dowling practically camped out in the hallways for six weeks, campaigning against the bill. (I can confirm that she's also enlisted her own registered lobbyist and several district employees to blitz state lawmakers with e-mailed objections.)

Apparently, it wasn't enough that she screwed up the county school district, thereby dooming thousands of kids to lousy educations. Dowling has the chutzpah to lobby the state from preventing similar mismanagement in the future.

You have to wonder: Why is anyone giving this woman the time of day?


It's been clear for some time that Sandra Dowling had absolutely no business running a school district — much less doing it without accountability for 17 years. Look at her track record: a big budget deficit, a history of horrific test scores, and enough evidence of personal corruption to get her indicted.

But don't take my word for it. Read the report from the experts brought in to run the schools after Dowling's indictment. That three-person board of receivers, appointed by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields earlier this year, has the unenviable task of straightening out the district's finances and getting education on track. (Click to view their February and May reports.)

Nancy Haas, an education professor at Arizona State University, has been on the receiving board since November. More than 10 years ago, Haas spent her sabbatical at one of Dowling's schools. She witnessed enough problems to become one of the district's few outspoken critics during Dowling's pre-indictment heyday.

But even Haas is getting an education these days.

"I had knowledge at the high level of critical issues that were working against providing good educational services to the students," she says. She still wasn't prepared for the rat's nest that she and her fellow receivers have found: "Even I am surprised at how bad it is."

The reports from Haas and her fellow panelists confirm much of what I wrote last year ("Flunk'd," June 29, 2006). Despite Dowling's public relations skill, even the crown jewel of her empire — the Thomas J. Pappas School, which serves homeless kids on four campuses in Phoenix and Tempe — has a shocking history of academic failure. Homeless kids enrolled there perform significantly worse than homeless students in mainstream districts.

Don't blame the teachers for that. As the receivers explain, Dowling's focus was on growing her empire, not helping homeless kids transition to neighborhood schools or even stay in a familiar environment as their families' lives were uprooted. (Federal law require districts to continue serving students even if their families lose housing in the area.) Shockingly, Dowling promised her top administrator a bonus if he increased enrollment — even though the school didn't have the staff to serve more children.

"In the past, one class size was reported with up to 45 students in the elementary school," the receivers note, "and at least one classroom in the middle school was allowed to swell to 56 students."

Fifty-six students. One class.

As the report explains, for all the talk about the Pappas schools' superior social services, the middle school didn't have a single social worker on site. Even teachers with 56 pupils had to deal with far greater issues than algebra.

By definition, these students come from difficult circumstances. Even more than most students, they would have benefited from smaller class size.

Instead, Dowling corralled them.

There's more. As the receivers write, "there is no evidence that teachers were provided a curriculum other than being given a set of the state standards. Further, there is little evidence that teachers were given materials aligned to the standards and that meet the needs of the learners."

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2 comments
rich
rich

How come this isn't considered child abuse, theft and fraud . Billions of dollars are spent on education and people still can't function in society.And she was trusted to lead us!! And look where she led us.now days have child pregnancies, drug abuse,racism and gang bangers, in general morale decay. Speaking from experience if you don't fit the schools ideal for a student they ignore you and you get left behind. School system is to conform our children into non American people that the Government can control without much effort.Not teach them how to function in society.(Examples)They won't teach how to deal with insurance companies,landlords,bad police Doctors, dentists, the list is endlessIt's kinda like in the ol'days an Indian not teaching their kids how to fish or hunt or farm. And then wonder "WHY IS HE HOMELESS OR CAN'T GET ALONG"The system is old out dated and needs a major over haul.

The systems old and needs to have a MAJOR over haul.

Joe
Joe

This just makes me sad; for the kids, the people of Maricopa County, and Sandra Dowling herself. What is gained by any of it? I would rather a good law be adopted for the wrong reason than a bad law adopted for the right one. In the end, the Senate chose to ingore the bigger issue; the proper and effective education of children.

 
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