CLASS IS OUT
On a chilly Saturday morning in late November, a few dozen parents and educators from the Washington Elementary School District gather in the middle of Cortez Park in north Phoenix.
It's not your typical school function; the only kids are on the other side of the park, fishing in a pond. But it is the district's children who bring the adults together.
Clad in sweat shirts and jeans, sipping coffee from waxed paper cups, the adults go about today's business seriously: removing Bob Hill from the Washington Elementary School District governing board.
Hill is a staunchly conservative Republican, and has been a thorn in the side of the district since he took office in 1979. The group is gathering signatures to force a recall election for the man they feel is "disrupting" the process of educating children.
To get him out, they must submit more than 10,000 valid signatures of registered voters to the county superintendent. They have only about half the amount they need.
The team huddles in the cold while its leader, parent David Lerner, goes over the dos and don'ts of signature gathering. They stand near a huge, yellow banner with a circle around Bob Hill's name and a slash running through it.
They grab clipboards, pens and petitions and set out in pairs to go door to door in the streets of the district, which spans 44 square miles in north Phoenix and Glendale. As they leave, Linda Gray, another parent in the district and a Hill supporter, stands a few feet away, videotaping the whole event. When Gray puts her camera down, Jean Donaldson, the Washington governing board's president and an active participant in the recall, pulls out a camera of her own and begins to videotape Gray.
You can't help but laugh.
Welcome to the politics and personalities of the state's largest school district. Paranoia, personal attacks, emotional outbursts--nothing is below the belt when it comes to educating the children.
"Bob Hill," says outgoing Washington board member Barry Aarons, "has become an obsession." From board members and top district administrators to parents and teachers, the recall of Bob Hill has engrossed the Washington Elementary School District.
Last fall it dominated several emotionally charged board meetings, for which crowds of 100 or more packed the board's classroom-size meeting room. Crowds applauded public comments denouncing Hill. Angry Hill supporters carried signs picketing Donaldson, the board president and Hill's nemesis.
The obsession plays out in the local media: Letter writers to the community sections of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette trade ink for and against Hill. The sides exchange quotes: Hill "is like Saddam Hussein, one confrontation after another," says Lerner. Hill supporters refer to Donaldson as "Dictator Jean." Hill supporters are "Bob's cronies; recallers are "thought police." Those who want Hill out have chalked up a long list of supporters around the district, a list that starts at the top. Along with board president Donaldson, board members Maxine Thompson and Nancy Hill (no relation to Bob Hill) gave the recall their support. Thirty of the district's 32 principals went on record calling for Bob Hill's resignation at a board meeting in October; the only two that didn't sign had just been hired. Teachers' unions from both the Washington district and the Glendale Union District--a district that isn't even in Hill's domain--have publicly supported his recall. Parent-teacher-organization presidents, support-staff organizations, you name it--all want Hill gone. On Hill's side is a committed group of parents--more than 90 signed a public statement supporting him while calling for Donaldson's resignation. His supporters have shown up in force at several board meetings this fall, complete with picket signs and biting speeches.
"It's one of those districts that's really excitable," says Jim Bloom, special assistant to county superintendent Sandra Dowling. Parents barrage his office with calls--as many as 50 or 60 on any given issue, he says. "They're really politically savvy."
The Washington district is knee-deep in partisan politics, with the school board serving as the springboard to higher office. Barry Aarons, a former lobbyist for U S West, is director of public information and legislation for Governor Fife Symington. Both Bob Hill and Maxine Thompson ran in the Republican primary for the District 16 state senate seat. Nancy Hill decided not to run for reelection to the school board, but did try unsuccessfully to keep her seat in the state senate.
"The wheeling and dealing in the senate is more subtle," she says.
Recalls seem to be a way of life in the Washington district. There have been ten other recall attempts in the district since 1979, the most in the county. Hill hasn't been the only target, although he was subject to a recall attempt once before, just ten months after he took office in 1979. That attempt, like the others, failed to gather sufficient signatures, but this time, recallers have finally done the job. Last week recallers submitted 14,385 signatures to the county superintendent in order to force a special election for Bob Hill's seat. If county officials can validate at least 10,565 of those, it will be the first such election in the district's 101-year history. When it comes to providing reasons to get rid of Hill--the longest-serving board member in the history of the Washington district--recallers produce a mountain of charges and accusations:
Hill publicly discussed executive-session hearings that were supposed to be private. He wrote an inaccurate con statement, distributed to thousands of district voters, opposing a 1986 budget override. He attached his own campaign literature to an official school-board memorandum. Recallers also charge Hill with questionable ethics. A district employee says Hill brought in his home computer so district staff could get it running. He had the board secretary use board stationery to send a personal letter to a Republican friend. He attempted to sell insurance to at least two newly hired district administrators. He admitted to taping district telephone calls without telling the other parties. There are issues related to job performance. Hill is blamed for pushing through a 1983 board decision to buy $250,000 worth of Acorn computers that are now little more than expensive typewriters. He's been chastised for a proposal to open a golf driving range to provide students with vocational education in the recreation industry.
Then there are issues of taste: At one board meeting, he displayed a fake hand grenade to demonstrate how he would discipline students. In proposing a nudity tax on magazines showing genitalia, he concealed another magazine inside the cover of a Playboy and read aloud from it at a board meeting. The nudity issue also gave rise to one of Hill's most outrageous public comments: He referred to naked Africans in National Geographic magazine as "bangi-bangi" natives.
The list goes on. Taken separately, however, none of Hill's actions gives the recallers a smoking gun. Add them together, and you have someone who skates along the edge of the law, at worst, and who's made a series of questionable decisions, at best. Bob Hill has been investigated, but never charged with any criminal offense.
What really seems to be the issue behind the recall is Hill's personality. He lacks tact. He distrusts district workers. He is abrasive. At board meetings, his comments are biting, even rude at times. He doesn't hesitate to blast administrators he feels aren't doing their jobs. He confronts public speakers he disagrees with, and will often smirk or laugh, or slip in offhand but piercing remarks, little jabs at the administration or even other board members. Hill is a dominating character with his own sense of humor. He is known for his theatrics. He often pounds on the school-board table at meetings.
Some women in the district complain he is patronizing. In the letter to his Republican colleague, he called a fellow board member a "neo-Nazi; he says he meant to say "femi-Nazi," a term for feminists made popular by radio-television talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Hill once called three female board members "very stupid women."
Hill, though, is usually more careful with his words, and his proposals and comments do have a philosophical basis. He's learned how to play the media and mastered name recognition. Even David Lerner, the parent who heads the recall drive, says Hill's public comments sound credible and articulate. Even board member Nancy Hill concedes that his persistent--some say tireless--questioning "does make you think about things. He brings things to light." Even the district highlights some of Bob Hill's accomplishments. He designed a program to provide free telephones and parking spaces for police at the schools to increase their presence there. His employees' self-insurance trust, along with a program to lease empty classroom space, saved the district money. Board members say his oft-criticized driving-range proposal actually appeared to be a good way to offer additional vocational education. And Sweetwater School principal Betty Hart says Hill has "done a lot of good things for special education." But Hill is frequently the lone vote against the majority. He sees himself as an enemy of the "education establishment." In a district in which the establishment talks of "positive press" and "building consensus," in a system striving for team leadership, in a system in which superintendent Carol Wilson wrote her dissertation on team management, on a board that is supposed to be a part of that team, Bob Hill doesn't fit in.
Two weeks before the general election in November, Hill is getting ready to campaign. He's running for the state senate in District 16.
His home in Glendale is on the edge of the 44-square-mile district, which spans the area from Bell Road to Bethany Home Road and 16th Street to 51st Avenue. He lives across the street from the Sweetwater School. Built in 1980, it was one of the last schools the district opened during a post-World War II boom. The industry that had grown up around the Black Canyon Highway--which splits the district down the middle--had attracted a largely middle-class citizenry to the district. Today, while the majority of residents are still middle class, income levels vary widely: At least a third of the district's students are thought to be from families living at or near the poverty line. Eighty-one percent of the district's students are white; Hispanics constitute 11 percent.
A huge sign in Hill's front yard touts "HiLL" as "a voice for the people." It stands near a weathered American flag tied to a tree.
A sign on the front door identifies the home as the real estate office of Hill's wife, Sara. Bob Hill is also a broker, and sells insurance, as well.
The two live in a modest home, decorated with old wood furniture and a piano in the living room. An easel with district-related poster boards sits in the dining room, next to a table decorated with plastic fruit. There is a glass chandelier hanging overhead. A Doberman pinscher, Jet, keeps a watchful eye on visitors.
The Hills have had their share of problems. A son died two years ago at age 34. They also have a disabled daughter. It was her disabilities that brought the Hills from Vermont to the Washington district in 1972: at the time, the district's special-education programs were some of the most advanced in the country.
At 57, Hill is a physically large man. His wardrobe runs to conservative dark suits with matching ties and suspenders. He wears George Bush-style wire-rim glasses, and combs his short, dark hair straight back. He begins his phrases with the word "frankly," and almost always mentions his number of years on the board to lend credence to a statement. His personality is a cross between Evan Mecham--another product of District 16--and Rush Limbaugh. Like Mecham, Bob Hill flashes a tight grin, is salesman slick and sees himself as a victim of conspiracy. Like Limbaugh, he's a big, dominating presence. Sara Hill sits across the table from her husband, nodding in agreement. In a letter to a local newspaper after the recall was announced last summer, she ended "her self-imposed silence of 13 years" to defend the "most decent, moral, God-fearing man I know." Bob Hill calls his wife his "right arm," and addresses her as "Babe." Following the lead of her husband, who used to tape district-related telephone calls, Sara Hill has kept a log of everything--every political conversation, meeting and telephone call--since their days in Vermont. "I have boxes out there in the garage," she says.
The logs record Bob Hill's involvement in special education, starting in the 1970s, when he served on the board of directors for United Cerebral Palsy of Arizona and worked as a special-education advocate for the Arizona Department of Education. Hill has pushed a hard-line, conservative approach to education from the very beginning. He believes that if a school goes two years without a "winning season--improvements in student test scores--the principal should be fired. Hill says he has told principals, "It's no threat--it's a promise. You bring in another losing season, and I will do my best to see that you will be replaced."
Over the years, he's chastised the district for not focusing enough attention on "core subjects," such as grammar, reading and math. He's proposed setting up a "traditional school" that would emphasize those basics--including a phonics-based reading program--in a setting with strict discipline. He has blasted the size of the administration, and favors consolidating Washington and the other districts into a "unified district" for kindergarten through 12th grade, which he says would cut down on the number of highly paid administrators.
He keeps a painfully watchful eye on district spending, and has opposed three budget overrides and one bond issue since 1986. He couldn't justify raising taxes, he says, when the board wasn't doing enough to cut wasteful spending.
To Hill, the recall attempt is nothing new. "Our loyal opposition runs it up the flagpole whenever they get unhappy," he says. Indeed, within less than a year after he took his seat on the board in 1979, Hill was up for recall, along with three other board members. Then, one of the main issues was his opposition to corporal punishment. Recallers failed to collect enough signatures to force an election.
Hill kisses off the current attempt as partisan politics and personal vendetta. He believes the recall is being driven by Stan Furman, his Democratic opponent in the District 16 state senate race. While recall leaders admit timing their activity around the election, and admit exchanging information with Furman, they deny he is the driving force. In response to the principals' letter calling for his resignation, Hill says that district superintendent Carol Wilson strong-armed some of the 30 principals into signing the document--a charge Wilson denies--and that two-thirds of the administrators are Democrats.
He says his feud with board president Jean Donaldson goes back to 1985. At one of her first meetings as a board member, she was appointed clerk. Hill voted against paying the $1,400 salary that went with the position, thus killing the motion, because it required unanimous approval.
"She went ballistic," Hill says as he reads over a transcript of the meeting, at some points laughing out loud. Since then, he says, he's been the subject of Donaldson's ire.
Hill has careful responses to all the charges made against him. He says the executive-session hearings he spoke publicly about shouldn't have been held privately in the first place. He admits he made inaccurate statements in his 1986 con statement, but says his point remained the same. He stapled his campaign literature to the official memo, he says, as a joke.
He denies using his position for personal gain. He says he merely asked for help in using his computer. The letter he had the board secretary send, he says, was to a constituent in the district. He offered insurance only to administrators whose school policies hadn't kicked in yet. It wasn't illegal to tape telephone conversations without the other party's consent at the time he did it, he says. He says the Acorn purchase looked good in 1983, and he cast only one vote in the 5-0 decision. He defends the driving-range proposal as an excellent way to keep kids from dropping out. But he points to the fact that he's never been charged with any wrongdoing as the most telling indicator of the weakness of the recallers' charges.
As Hill gets ready to leave to campaign for the senate seat, he tries to appear unconcerned about the recall's chances. "I haven't put a lot of time or thought into it," he says. "I have refused to allow the recall game to divert my energy from the senate race."
But the recall clearly had an effect on Hill's state senate bid. He lost by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.
After the election, Hill reluctantly admits the recall hurt him. But he still insists it was motivated by Furman, and predicts it will die out now that the election is over.
Ironically, all five members of this politically active school board were up for one election or another this year, and all of them but board president Donaldson lost. Maxine Thompson lost in the state senate primary to Bob Hill. Barry Aarons lost his bid to continue his appointed term on the school board. Outgoing board member Nancy Hill--who did not run for her school-board seat--lost her reelection bid in state senate District 18.
More bizarre, only Donaldson, who had withdrawn her candidacy, won her race.
David Lerner, the parent leading the recall, keeps the school-board election in perspective. "It's like state mining inspector. People just vote for random names."
There appears to be little tension in the school district's main office near 19th Avenue and Butler. There is a "feel-good" atmosphere; workers are friendly, courteous. There are stacks of pamphlets and newsletters in the office, including brochures highlighting two district programs started by Bob Hill. The date beneath Hill's picture on the wall reminds you he has been on the board longer than any other current member. Yet it is Donaldson who is completely at home here, although she has no office of her own. When she arrives, she confidently slips into an absent administrator's office to conduct an interview. Donaldson, a board member since 1985, is a graduate student at Arizona State University, where she works as a research associate in education and social policy at the Morrison Institute. She has made getting Hill off the board a personal crusade. She bowed out of the election to commit herself to the recall campaign; she thought it would be "a personal conflict" to run for the school board and work on the recall at the same time. But her decision came too late to remove her name from the ballot, so Donaldson signed an affidavit saying she would not serve if she were elected. She got a court to order the posting of signs informing the public she was not a candidate. "I wanted to prevent the embarrassment of getting 500 votes," she says.
But few signs, if any, were posted, and Donaldson ended up winning the third open seat. She subsequently decided she wanted to keep it, and two weeks after the election, the county superintendent agreed to let her. The district staff is clearly elated she'll stay on, with congratulations coming from several employees. Donaldson leads the fight against Hill. She often cuts him off at board meetings, and scolds him for comments she feels are out of line. She was the one who went to the county attorney when Hill had the board secretary write to his Republican colleague. Donaldson is quick to accuse Hill of violating the board's code of ethics and rules of order. Among the provisions at the end of the rules of order is a clause stating that board members and district employees "shall treat each other with dignity and respect. Personal attacks on the ability, integrity or competence of any member . . . shall not be tolerated." The clause was added in 1985, partly to counter some of Bob Hill's rhetoric.
Donaldson views the board as a team. Hill, she says, has no desire to be a part. "The board involves cooperation, honesty, openness," she says. "We agree to disagree. It's not competing with other board members for power."
Donaldson says she's seen firsthand the effect Hill's criticism has had on staff morale: She's found a reluctance to try something new for fear of public criticism from him. "There's a nagging concern among principals and staff, if something doesn't work out, or if Bob doesn't like it, they could be subject to public ridicule." As one employee says, "When I see him walking down the sidewalk, I'll go in the back room."
Unofficially, from top administrators down, most district staff are strongly behind Hill's recall. Recallers and administrators use the same language and phrases, constantly calling Hill "disruptive" and "derisive."
The recallers and the district administration keep a close watch on who talks to whom, and what was said. The grapevine works quickly: Karen Kleinz, director of community relations, is aware the following morning of a conversation Nancy Hill had at 11 the night before. Three employees know Donaldson will be late for a 9 a.m. appointment.
Superintendent Carol Wilson tries hard to stay neutral, originally declining to comment on the situation, but then happily arranging a tour of the district's Acorn computers, one of Bob Hill's "mistakes."
There is a feeling of paranoia among both the district staff and recallers when it comes to the press. They all think Hill has been given preferential treatment. Kleinz has gone so far as to meet with Phoenix Gazette editors to discuss articles and even letters to the editor. The paranoia flourishes in spite of a slew of columns blasting Hill; one writer went as far as to call him an "educational Neanderthal."
Despite Hill--and despite the effort to remove him--the district is making progress.
Last year--in line with nationwide efforts toward decentralization--the district began a site-based management system allowing individual schools to take more control of local operations. In March of this year, voters passed a $38 million bond that will provide, among other things, air conditioning for several schools that don't have it. On district tests of basic skills, student scores increased almost across the board. Such progress puts the district in a bind: While officials want Hill out, they don't want to talk negatively about the district. It is almost accepted as gospel that Hill is the obstacle to the district's advancement. "The potential here is for real greatness," Kleinz says, grandiloquently.
The board's meeting room isn't unlike a student classroom. The carpet is an ugly, utilitarian orange. The plastic seats are also orange--but a different shade than the carpet--and uncomfortable. At the board's first December meeting, the pictures of Thanksgiving turkeys have been replaced by a chart of students' favorite "vegies." The fact that "vegies" is spelled with one g and not the usual two is an example to one Hill supporter of how bad things are in the district.
Faithful from both sides are some of the first to arrive. There are a few anti-Donaldson signs--Jean Donaldson, Guilty of Fraud," "Yesterday AzScam, Today Jeanscam--left over from a meeting at which Hill supporters criticized Donaldson's decision to keep her seat.
More than 100 parents show up tonight--some are forced to sit on the edges of tables stacked along the walls. Others crowd outside and peer in through a doorway.
Meetings can last as long as four hours. Notes and even recall petitions are passed back and forth. People whisper during the moment of silence. Perhaps the only time the audience is united is during the Pledge of Allegiance. When the public comments begin, the meeting turns vicious. The air feels hotter in the room. A line of Hill's supporters sarcastically questions Donaldson's integrity, calls her a liar and a cheat. Donaldson stares directly at each speaker, then thanks each one. She shows no emotion--one speaker even wonders if she's listening. Under board rules, she can't respond to the public comments. Nancy Hill--who sits next to Donaldson and is her good friend--gives the pro-Bob Hill speakers no such courtesy. She appears bored throughout their speeches.
The main issue tonight is a vote on whether to eliminate the Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of volunteer parents that researches issues for the board. The committee, Donaldson says, is no longer necessary; each school has its own local committees.
But something else is going on here. In recent years, Hill's supporters have dominated the committee. When the voting is over, Hill is the only one who votes against killing the committee. The vote is a direct blow at him.
Now that the Bob Hill recallers have finished gathering their signatures, and the controversial school-board member will face a recall election, his supporters have decided on a counterattack. Linda Gray, the Hill fan doing the filming in Cortez Park, explained the thinking: "All they had on their recall petitions was Hill was rude at board meetings. We have an ethical problem on ours."
Their target, Gray wrote in a press release, is the board president who took her seat after saying she would not run and promising she would not serve. "Jean Donaldson says the voters want her back. Wrong. I think that if Millie Bush had been on the ballot, she would have gotten votes, too."
Originally, the Hill supporters tried to gather signatures for a letter demanding Donaldson's resignation. The group was trying to get 1,000 signatures. Then one supporter had an inspiration: "Forget this--let's go for a recall!"
Last week, Hill's supporters began gathering signatures for what will be the Washington district's 12th recall action since 1979.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.