Phoenix's embattled inner-city high schools faced their biggest crisis ever last summer, when a short, round, hyperactive Irishman named Timothy Dyer announced that he planned to resign as superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District.
The leprechaunesque Dyer, who cooked up the South Mountain Plan, has been a successful and dynamic advocate for poor kids and has sensitized politicos to the urgency of improving inner-city schools. But he's leaving this spring for a more prestigious job as executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
His departure couldn't have come at a more terrible time for the all-Anglo Phoenix Union High School Governing Board, which is facing a serious financial and political crisis.
The board is taking a political pistol-whipping from Hispanic groups, who say the board's nationwide search for Dyer's replacement hasn't been sensitive enough to Hispanic needs.
"We've been likened to South Africa," laments Cookie Pettit, the Phoenix Union school board president. Pettit says the board had hired an educational consultant to look into qualifications for an ideal superintendent. The consultant Paul Briggs died unexpectedly two weeks ago. At the time of his death, he'd already drawn up a profile of the ideal Phoenix Union superintendent to assist the board in its search. He came up with the profile after interviewing dozens of community leaders, including Hispanics, says Pettit.
But Hispanics contend Briggs consulted mostly Anglos, and they interpret that as an innate insensitivity to minority issues. "The new superintendent doesn't have to be Hispanic," explains Eugene Bressard, the CEO of Friendly House, who is active in promoting quality minority education. "But we want someone who is dedicated 100 percent to minority issues. And we want someone who isn't going to use Phoenix as a steppingstone to a bigger, more prestigious job."
That last jab is aimed at Dyer, who came to Phoenix in 1985 and is now leaving because he got a better job offer. Bressard charges that Dyer used Phoenix as a "steppingstone" for his career. At the same time the Phoenix Union board clashes with Hispanics over the selection of a superintendent, it also faces a frightening money crisis. Last year, an unusual coalition of voters knocked the school board silly by rejecting the tax that helps the impoverished high schools.
Every year since 1972, district voters had approved a small property-tax hike that had allowed the district to pay its bills. Yet last year, voters said no, even though the tax only cost the average district property owner an extra 25 cents per year--less than a good-sized Milky Way bar. Despite its tiny impact on the average pocketbook, the tax would have provided district schools with a desperately needed $6.5 million.
The coalition of malcontents that defeated the tax included abstinence-only advocates disgruntled over a clinic for pregnant teens at Carl Hayden High School and a gaggle of folks who were upset over any tax increase.
Now the battle is on again. Voters will decide on a similar property-tax increase this May, and if it is defeated again, the inner-city schools will be out by $9 to $11 million dollars. Although the South Mountain Plan won't be affected, the lack of funding would decimate other programs at South Mountain and all other district schools.
The struggling school board always looked to Dyer when such crises arose. "He is a visionary with incredible leadership skills who can get anybody to do anything whether they like it or not," says Pettit, the board president. "He's one of a kind. But I'm sure there's a person out there who'll bring us strength and courage. And we do need courage."
Given the financial and political hassles facing the district, Dyer's critics say he's abandoning Phoenix at the very time he's needed most. Dyer responds that such charges are "poppycock." The job he was offered is just too prestigious to turn down, he says. The superintendent also denies that his exit from Phoenix has started a "brain drain" among district administrators. Last summer Georgina Takemoto, the district's director of curriculum, resigned to work in the Paradise Valley School District. Takemoto had moved to Phoenix from Michigan, where she worked at Dyer's side. Dyer angrily denies that Takemoto moved to Paradise Valley because he's resigning and notes that Takemoto gave her notice before she even knew Dyer was leaving. "She left for personal reasons that have nothing to do with me or the district," Dyer says. "That's all I can say. It was just a very, very personal decision." Dyer has in his five-year tenure conducted a forceful, impassioned campaign to convince city politicians and legislators that Phoenix will deteriorate unless more thought, time and money are devoted to educating inner-city kids.
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"As the schools go, so goes the city," Dyer has often said. He used that slogan as the title for his slide show, which he presented to anyone who would watch. The show, and its zealous presenter, left no doubt that Phoenix's underfunded inner-city schools have terrible problems. Declining enrollment, poor scholastic achievement, high dropout rates, gangs and violence cause middle-class parents of every color to move to the suburbs, where they think the schools are better. With no middle-class residents, central Phoenix becomes a blighted, crime-ridden hell-hole like Detroit or Chicago, he warned.
That was enough to prompt Mayor Terry Goddard and the Phoenix City Council, who have long promoted a revitalized downtown, to hire a full-time staffer to see what the city can do to improve the schools. In pre-Dyer times, the city had traditionally left the fate of the schools to the various school boards.
Dyer also repeatedly pointed out to state politicians, who are so stingy that Arizona ranks near the bottom in education spending, that if you don't pay for education now, you end up paying a lot more money down the line. Eighty-two percent of prison inmates and 55 percent of welfare mothers are high school dropouts, he often preached.
Dyer's last message to Phoenix is the same one he's had all along. "Many people say we should forget about those kids, but that's pure child abuse," Dyer says. "Education is the ONLY way we can break the cycle of poverty. If we don't, we will end up paying for it. Educated people have jobs, pay taxes, give more back to society. We can make a difference with these kids and we know we can make a difference.