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Charter Martyr

I have heard so many stories about Carolyn Sawyer's earthy, manipulative personality that I expect to meet a Janis Joplin-like middle-aged hippie who could charm the birds right down from the trees.

Instead, for about half an hour, I sit in a lawyer's office staring at a silent woman with guarded eyes, dressed, it seems to me, in a way calculated to appear like a schoolmarm. Severe bun, spectacles, austere business suit.

During the interview that follows, Sawyer lets her lawyer do all the talking. I am disappointed. I had hoped to get a whiff of Sawyer's charisma, a charm that has swayed the state Board for Charter Schools to come to Sawyer's rescue again and again, despite the fact that her reign as the principal of ABC Alternative Learning Center took on the tone of an air raid over Dresden.

When the ABC board fired Sawyer as principal of the charter school earlier this spring, the state board reinstated her. And when Sawyer wanted to run the school under a different corporation--essentially to take the control away from the board of parents she'd warred with--the state board backed her. This summer, in an ugly move, the state board even threatened to revoke the original charter for the ABC school.

Now the Arizona Attorney General's Office is conducting an investigation that involves Sawyer and her ex-husband. The investigation, which is being performed at the request of the state auditor general, stems from a muddy 1996 real estate deal (involving a school lease) in which $10,000 was deposited into a joint bank account held by Carolyn Sawyer and her former husband, John Cahal.

Meanwhile, more fireworks are popping at Superior Court over two ongoing lawsuits in which Sawyer and her ex-friends on the ABC school board are fighting bitterly. Sawyer claims she was wrongfully fired. The school board claims she was a sloppy administrator who didn't properly account for considerable funds and misreported critical data to the state in order to get additional funds. (So far, legal bills have exceeded $60,000. Taxpayers will probably pay.)

Yet in the face of all the serious allegations in the public record and an ongoing attorney general's investigation, last week the state Board for Charter Schools approved Sawyer's application to run yet another charter school next year. It's called Summit Academy, and taxpayers are expected to pay more than $610,000 to fund its first year.

Go figure.

In the early 1990s, Carolyn Sawyer and her husband John Cahal were part of a hip downtown group of professional folks whose kids attended a cooperative preschool. Sawyer eventually became its co-director. Then in 1995, after a law was passed creating charter schools, Sawyer applied for the ABC Alternative Learning Charter.

The criterion for opening a charter school then and today is whether you can persuade the state board that you are qualified to run a charter school. That was easy for Carolyn Sawyer and her band of hip moms from the preschool, who wowed the state board with educational buzz words--Parental Involvement, Emphasis on Basics, Developing a Lifelong Love of Learning.

The board did not seem to mind that Sawyer's only educational experience seemed to be helping her husband run a marginally successful tutoring service plus her brief tenure co-directing a little preschool. In 1995, the board gave ABC $920,000 in taxpayer dollars to open up a school for 140 students.

No one knew at the time that Sawyer was in trouble financially.
No one knew that since 1993, she had planned to leave her husband.
The year before ABC Alternative School opened, Sawyer and her husband jointly earned a little more than $44,000. Their debts were growing--by 1997 they owed more than $133,000 to credit-card companies and the IRS.

The charter school seemed to be a financial windfall for Sawyer.
The first year the school opened, Sawyer earned $63,504 a year as the principal, and her husband, who was also chairman of the board, got an additional $50,000 that year for teaching students how to read.

With little oversight from their board of hip professional moms and dads, and even less oversight from the state board, Sawyer and her husband had free rein of the school.

Cahal even persuaded the ABC board to let him take advantage of a preposterous Charter School regulation, still in force, that enabled him and Sawyer to personally own the building the school was renting. All the board had to do was pay for the building with $100,000 of our tax dollars. Then Cahal and Sawyer would apply the money as prepaid rent on their new building.

What the school board didn't learn for months was that a mistake had been made in drawing up the sales papers and that the parking lot it had planned to convert into an additional building and playground were not included in the deal. Instead of informing the board, Cahal had pocketed $10,000 from the seller as a remedy for the mix-up and deposited it into a joint bank account he held with Sawyer, the ABC board now alleges in court.  

Sawyer told the ABC board that despite the fact that she signed the papers as the school's principal, she had nothing to do with the deal--it was all her husband's fault.

In a recent deposition, Sawyer claimed she signed documents pertaining to the deal without reading them--in part because her husband bullied her. "He frightened me. He frightened me over and over and over again. He threatened me over and over and over again.

"And I was also afraid that if I wasn't part of it, that he would gain control of the building and that he would push me out and make good on his threats to bring me down."

According to Sawyer, Cahal threatened to "bring me down with a phone call" to Cahal's sister, who was a "very good friend of State Schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, and there was always the implication that I could simply be taken down politically."

So what did it mean, exactly, to bring Sawyer down?
"Bring me down. I don't know exactly what that means. It means to hurt me," Sawyer testified.

Cahal, through his lawyer, says he did not threaten Sawyer. And he denies wrongdoing in the real estate deal.

The attorney general is currently investigating the case.
What's clear is that Sawyer's personal problems influenced her professional decisions.

The ABC board began to notice other problems with Sawyer's administration--most notably, a gross misreporting to the state of the number of special-ed students, which meant the school would get more money. The school claimed 61 special-ed students; in fact, there were only 16.

As usual, Sawyer would not accept any blame. She testified she exercised no oversight over the report--the bookkeeper sent it in to the state.

The school board found other problems--for instance, Carolyn Sawyer was paid $1,300 for supplies, but there were no receipts for the supplies.

"I am sorry that you cannot find the receipts for the reimbursements for supplies," Sawyer wrote the board. "I submitted them to Mena (our bookkeeper) before receiving the check. Unfortunately, I did not make copies, as I didn't think that they would be lost."

Curiously, Sawyer has chosen the same bookkeeper to handle the funds for her new school.

Mary Gifford, vice president of the Arizona Board for Charter Schools, sees nothing wrong with approving Sawyer's application for another charter school.

Sure, there's an ongoing AG investigation, but, she says, "until we get something back from the Attorney General's Office, we don't know who's at fault."

Right. So why did the board approve Sawyer's application before the investigation was closed?

"It appears as though Sawyer is not the object of a criminal investigation," Gifford says, adding that the board had "long discussions" with the Attorney General's Office about the case.

"Carolyn will most likely not be implicated in wrongdoing," she says.
Key words: "most likely."
What about misreporting the number of special-education students?

Gifford says the board "couldn't verify those numbers were false," despite the fact that the ABC school had to pay back to the state $15,000 for the mistake.

In short, Gifford says, ABC became a great school under Sawyer's leadership. Sawyer is a "wonderful educator" and a "good leader."

Gifford tells me the state board now has more checks and balances, additional oversight over all charter schools, including Sawyer's approved Summit Academy.

In his law office, with his client sitting by his side scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, Harry Keidan says over and over again that "to the best of my knowledge" Carolyn Sawyer has done nothing wrong. He admits the real estate transaction was a "mistake," but declines to comment on whether Sawyer mixed her personal and professional decisions over the deal.

What about allegations of misrepresenting figures to the state?
"To the best of my knowledge," says Keidan, "she misrepresented nothing to no one."

"In my opinion," Keidan says, "Carolyn is a very warm, sensitive and competent person and is very competent to receive and administer a school charter in the state of Arizona. And, of course, that was the decision of the Arizona Board for Charter Schools. And it's really their province to make such decisions, not mine."

Keidan says Sawyer is going to use an "outside CPA" to handle the new school funds, and notes that the school is going to be operated under a "very advanced, very forward-looking" program designed at Stanford University.  

As Carolyn Sawyer stares at me from across the table, I am reminded of the buzz words in Sawyer's new charter application: ". . . to seek out and build on every student's natural curiosity . . . an underlying set of values that includes equity, participation, communication, reflection, experimentation, trust, and risk taking. . . ."

I am tired of buzz words.
The state Board for Charter Schools, apparently, can still get snookered.
Why else would the board approve Sawyer's application before the Attorney General's Office closes its investigation?

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at tgreene@newtimes.com


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