The intersection of Seventh Street and Southern Avenue in South Phoenix is busy at dusk. Drivers race to get home to dinner and leave the problems of the workday behind.
This particular Wednesday in February is no different, except for the cars filling the lot at the headquarters of the Roosevelt Elementary School District.
A few people mingle outside the building. Inside, anticipation has squelched conversation to whispers.
The predominantly black faces turn and quietly exchange snippets of information, each sharing a tidbit heard from another. The volume inside picks up slowly as the crowd swells to fill the neat rows of straight-back chairs.
The people wait much longer than the 30 minutes the school board is supposed to be in executive session. They grow fidgety and their whispers grow to a roar of socializing.
One man passes out handmade yellow signs. Another woman moves from row to row, greeting most of the people in the room.
And while this impromptu reception works toward a crescendo, Dr. Charles Townsel works the crowd, shaking hands, patting backs, meeting each with a personal greeting, and tilting his head back in an occasional, hearty laugh.
His dark suit sets off the gray in his hair and the shine of his gold-rimmed glasses. He has all the polish of a politician at a rally. He is articulate, charismatic and has a gift for saying what people want to hear.
Townsel is an administrator in the Roosevelt district, and he's the reason everyone has gathered for what might otherwise be a routine personnel matter.
Townsel is in his element, because controversial personnel matters have been the hallmark of his career as an educator. He has often counted on supporters to confront those who would persecute him.
The five solemn school board members file into the room to take their places.
Audience members quietly raise signs that read, "Dr.Townsel Has Our Support." Children hold their own placards reading, "We Love Dr. Townsel."
They are parents, they are employees and they are members of the local NAACP, where Townsel is chairman of the education committee.
Danny Ortega, the school district's attorney, reads a laundry list of sins allegedly committed by Townsel. The sins constitute fraud and they are the reason Townsel is also the subject of an investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
The Roosevelt School District alleges that between April and November of 1994, Townsel:
* Billed the district for a coupon book of airline tickets, most of which were used for personal trips and first-class upgrades.
* Exchanged expensive tickets purchased by the district for cheaper flights and kept the difference.
* Claimed professional leave and billed the district for travel expenses for meetings and conferences he did not attend.
The alleged misdeeds involve only about $1,750, which is not a lot in the grand scheme of fraud. It's certainly less than the $5,000 in legal fees the district has incurred to prepare charges against Townsel.
But in the Roosevelt School District, $1,750 could almost buy one child's education for a year.
After the charges are read, Townsel takes the podium, turns the microphone and addresses not the school board but the audience.
"I have not violated any board policy or state law," Townsel says. "I was not given an opportunity to explain any charges brought against me."
In fact, a January 17 letter to Townsel from Ortega invited him to do just that.
No matter. Townsel is just warming up.
"Seems to me that is a lynching job," he says, directing his comments toward Superintendent John Baracy, who is Anglo and who is, no doubt, keenly aware that the last two superintendents who tangled with Townsel are no longer on the job.
Finally, Townsel closes with, "Thank all of you for coming out and supporting me and God bless all of you."
The audience members are with him. They're clapping. They're ready to run to the podium. They're not happy to hear that they won't be allowed to speak.
The Reverend George Brooks, who has been on this school board for more than 20 years, assures all that he has "a great many questions," but that "we shall have a full-scale trial."
Brooks casts the only dissenting vote as the board decides to file a formal Statement of Charges against Townsel and put him on paid leave from his $67,000-a-year position for 30 days.
Roosevelt policy dictates that Townsel may request a full-scale hearing on the matter during that time, and it's assumed that he will.
The meeting is over, but the action has just begun.
Public education is nothing if not passionately political. Roosevelt--a school district with mostly minority students and with low property wealth and high tax rates--is also South Phoenix's largest employer. Personnel issues have led to the demise of many a superintendent and school board member. Racial, political and personal vendettas play out in spectacles--microcosms of public education's turmoil.
Now, after two years of relative quiet from the ethnic politics, scandal and financial turmoil that rocked this district in the past, Roosevelt is gripped by the fear that the turmoil is about to return.
The issue at hand, that of Townsel's wrongdoing, is supposed to be about money. But if the district's history is any indication, it's likely to be about race and politics and a whole lot of other things.
When asked about the case against Townsel, the Reverend Brooks, his staunchest supporter, says, "Remember this, black men are under the gun in this country. It started with Adam Powell."
Charles Townsel is infamous in the Sacramento County, California, Office of Education. Twenty years ago, he was superintendent of the Del Paso School District in the Del Paso Heights suburb of Sacramento.
Del Paso is a low-income district with many of the same financial problems as Roosevelt. Back then, the district was nearly 85percent African American, the remainder divided between Latinos and Anglos.
In those days, a time between the civilrights movement and the backlash over affirmative action, minority administrators were scarce, though their numbers were beginning to climb. Townsel became director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.
Meanwhile, his school district faced mounting financial problems.
Townsel tangled with county auditors over expenses they routinely questioned and frequently disallowed--things like travel expenses, consultants' fees, long-distance phone calls, furniture and membership dues.
"It was something all the time," remembers Marge Buckendorf, who oversaw DelPaso's expenses for Sacramento County. "We had to do a special audit on that district because he had so much that was wrong."
Townsel responded to New Times' inquiry with a certified letter suggesting he would be willing to discuss only the issues at hand inthe Roosevelt School District. But then he failed to return repeated phone calls.
Most of the pertinent 20-year-old financial records of the Del Paso School District no longer exist. However, Sacramento Bee reporter Art Campos detailed the nearly constant financial andpolitical turmoil the district endured under Townsel. County auditors and Del Paso school board members tell New Times that the Bee's accounts are accurate.
While Townsel was superintendent, theU.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; California Department of Education; Senate Finance Committee; Auditor General's Office; and a Sacramento County grand jury all took issue with Del Paso and Townsel's expenses.
The county refused Townsel's travel claims "primarily for such items as lost airline tickets, duplicate meal charges and discrepancies in hotel stays and conference dates," according to news reports confirmed by the auditors.
The district had to repay $7,640 in federal funds for sending children, parents and staff on an unauthorized field trip to New York.
Del Paso also had to repay $197,891 for violations in federal job programs.
The California Department of Education said $103,972 in state and federal funds were not properly accounted for. Meanwhile, a Sacramento County grand jury took issue with how $65,000 in Title7 Emergency School Aid funds for disadvantaged children were spent.
By 1979, Del Paso was $217,398 in debt and took out a loan from the county to cover the deficit.
And the community was in turmoil.
A citizens' group worked to recall three Townsel supporters on the board.
One of the people leading the charge against Townsel was another African American, Grantland Johnson. He is now regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a former Sacramento city councilman and county supervisor. His wife, Charlot Bolton, was a member of the Del Paso School Board during Townsel's tenure.
"We weren't about to wait for the public institutions to do something," Johnson remembers. "It was clear to us that had it not been a low-income, minority district, none of this would have happened. It never would have been tolerated.
"We had the research that clearly showed malfeasance and mismanagement," Johnson says. "People in positions of responsibility very well could have conducted much more thorough, intrinsic investigations."
And so the community took matters into its own hands and, in doing so, was plunged into the most turbulent racial and political era in its history.
Dora Huntzig, another Del Paso board member and an opponent of Townsel, remembers those days vividly.
"The racial thing came in because I'm Hispanic," she says. "The theme was always, 'What are we doing for the black community?' Well, what about the black children who went to school there?"
Yet this was actually more of a class struggle than a racial struggle--a good deal of Townsel's supporters were from communities more affluent than the Del Paso district.
Johnson blames Townsel for promoting "blind racial faith" to cloud the issues at hand.
"He was very effective at playing the race card, playing up to 'not laundering the black administrator in public' as a way of discouraging and castigating and attempting to intimidate folks from being too critical," he says.
Johnson recalls with derision Townsel's "paternalism and condescension he exhibited toward members of the African-American community down there. ... The assumption that they did not have the intelligence to understand what [are] competent and capable and sound practices. ... Like we couldn't read a travel voucher and know something was wrong."
Townsel fought back, reportedly working to prevent the recall of board members sympathetic to him. And a week before the recall election, the board extended Townsel's contract by three years, which meant it would cost the district about $100,000 more to buy him out.
Nonetheless, Townsel was clearly on his way out the door. The district sought to break his contract because of a technicality. Then Townsel reportedly offered to resign for $90,000. The board refused, and Townsel sued the district.
But all of this was cut short by another of Townsel's misadventures.
In 1980, Townsel pleaded guilty to three counts of federal income tax evasion and one count of making a false statement on an income tax return, primarily for failing to claim consulting fees.
The school district allowed him to resign, and he was sentenced to six months at the Federal Correctional Institution at Lompoc. He was released two months early.
Charles Townsel was hired as director of operations services in the Roosevelt Elementary School District in September 1983.
A year later, the principal at P.L. Julian Elementary School died, and Townsel succeeded him as acting principal.
In 1985, former superintendent Mervin Lackey, who had brought Townsel to the board for hiring in the first place, recommended that Townsel's contract not be renewed. Neither Lackey nor anyone in the current regime at Roosevelt will elaborate on the reasons. But for some reason, Townsel left the district in 1985, under a negotiated settlement.
He returned in 1989, with the support of George Brooks and another clergyman who was on the board at the time, the Reverend Bernard Black. This time, Townsel was hired as assistant principal at Valley View Elementary School. Alejandro Perez had replaced Lackey as superintendent.
Townsel also dabbled in politics, assisting the school board campaigns of Brooks, Black and board member Linda Armstead.
And when the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors named former state representative Armando Ruiz to replace state Senator Carolyn Walker, who had been convicted of accepting bribes in the AzScam probe, Townsel raised the issue of race.
"It seems to me that Carolyn Walker represented the black community," he told the supervisors. "That seat should have gone to another black person."
Brooks was named to replace Ruiz in the House of Representatives.
Townsel mounted a brief campaign for the Legislature in 1992, but withdrew before the election.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt was in the grip of an ethnic political war that would hang like an albatross around its neck for years. Thanks to a boom in immigration, the Latino population in this traditionally African-American community was fast becoming a majority.
And the five-member Roosevelt School Board swung between a Latino and African-American majority, while each side accused the other of favoritism.
At one point, all five members of the school board were recalled in an election that cost the district $20,000. And on more than one occasion, school board meetings had to be moved to an auditorium to accommodate massive crowds.
"It was getting to the place where we couldn't show our faces in public," says board member Linda Aguirre, who is also a state representative. "Every board meeting, every other conference I went to, in state and out, everyone knew about Roosevelt. It was getting harder to recruit principals and to recruit personnel."
Against this backdrop, Townsel was again charged with misdeeds by the school board. And attorney Danny Ortega would handle Roosevelt's case against Townsel.
Norma Ransom, a teacher at Valley View, accused Townsel of sexual harassment. It was 1991, on the heels of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings.
Townsel claimed that the Classroom Teachers Association and the district's personnel director, Michael Martinez, had put Ransom up to the filing of the complaint.
Ironically, one of the pieces of evidence against Townsel was his district expense account. Townsel claimed he was not in town on a day that Ransom claimed one of the incidents occurred. But district expense records showed that he returned from a conference in Dallas the day before.
The hearings drew a packed house, television cameras and national media coverage.
Townsel was exonerated of the charges in a 3-2 vote, with the two Latino board members, Linda Aguirre and Carlos Avelar, voting against him.
The whole matter cost the district $60,000 in legal fees. Ransom left the district after she was accused of being unable to manage her classroom. Townsel moved to his current position at the district office as director of the Title 1 federal grant program.
But the legal wrangling between Townsel and Roosevelt was far from over.
Townsel filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying the district had discriminated against him when it passed him over for a deputy superintendent's post. EEOC dismissed the complaint.
Then Townsel filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that his civil rights had been violated when he was not named director of personnel.
Roosevelt's insurance company ultimately settled the case with Townsel for $10,000, according to Denise McKenna, the district's in-house attorney.
But in the meantime, Townsel was hauled before the Arizona Board of Education to explain why his 1983 certification application stated that he had never been convicted of a crime.
Townsel assured the board that it was an honest mistake and that he had inadvertently checked "no" instead of "yes" on the application.
Reverend Brooks told the state board that Townsel's tax conviction was "a known fact" when he was hired and that the board was happy to keep him.
The state Board of Education suspended Townsel's education certificate for six months, during which time Townsel continued to work at the district office as a noncertified administrator.
Charles Townsel's financial pratfalls have not been limited to schools. Some of them are detailed in a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Sometime around 1991, Townsel met Jeanne Hallenbeck-Doutrick, a widow who lived in an apartment near his. Hallenbeck-Doutrick suffers from multiple sclerosis and at the time was experiencing the early stages of dementia often associated with the tragic disease.
The disability had forced her to retire from her job as a clerk for the City of Phoenix.
Townsel and Hallenbeck-Doutrick developed a friendship. In court documents, Townsel claims he took a great interest in Hallenbeck-Doutrick's care.
After Hallenbeck-Doutrick moved to Sun City, Townsel said he drove to her home four times a week to care for her, took her shopping and out to eat, ran her errands and spent every weekend with her.
And by 1993, she had given Townsel her house, her car and had spent nearly $30,000 in checks and credit-card charges on him.
That's when her daughters sued for guardianship of their mother and to wrest control of her estate from Townsel.
Medical records indicate that Hallenbeck-Doutrick was incompetent during the time she was signing checks to pay Townsel's bills: taxes, loan payments, rent, the mortgage on his daughter's home in California and legal bills to attorney Alice Bendheim, who represented Townsel in the sexual harassment case.
Townsel argued in court papers that Hallenbeck-Doutrick gave him her home because he cared about her. But she had no recollection of having done it.
"During this time, Jeanne chose to help me through some trying financial obligations," Townsel said in court papers. "She volunteered to do so after she and I had talked about my needs."
The golf clubs, clothing and furniture charged on her credit cards were apparently part of those needs as well.
"I took Jeanne shopping at Scottsdale Mall," he said. "In the course of her shopping, she decided that she wanted to buy some things for me at the St.Croix men's shop."
But it was Townsel who signed many of the credit receipts during those shopping expeditions.
The court awarded guardianship of Hallenbeck-Doutrick to her daughters in March 1993.
A month later, Townsel drove Hallenbeck-Doutrick to the Peoria Justice Court and married her--without the permission of her guardians.
On the marriage license, Hallenbeck-Doutrick's first name isn't even spelled correctly.
The marriage lasted as long as it takes to get an annulment. Townsel skipped that court proceeding.
He settled the probate case, agreeing to return the house and the car and never to see Hallenbeck-Doutrick again.
The Reverend George Brooks and Charles Townsel are old friends. They go way back to the University of California at Berkeley during the height of the civil rights movement.
Brooks recently retired from the pulpit of Southminster Presbyterian Church, but not from the school board on which he has served longer than anyone can quickly remember.
The district is renaming Palmdale Elementary School after Brooks. He plans to run for reelection in November.
Brooks has taken a lot of heat for a lot of things over the years, not the least of which is his allegiance to Townsel.
Nonetheless, he argues that the current charges brought against Townsel were not egregious enough to vote with the rest of the board to start the ball rolling toward Townsel's termination.
"I'll have to stand in judgment on the matter later on," Brooks says. "I haven't heard all the evidence."
However, like everyone else who has a hand in running the Roosevelt School District office, he has heard the buzz in the community.
"The district has been jelling together and it appears to me that minor problems would much better be served through internal rather than external means," says Brooks.
But it was Townsel, not district officials, who insisted that an open hearing on the matter be held.
In the days leading up to his personnel hearing, Townsel resigned and then unresigned twice. He also parted ways with his attorney.
There are some other dynamics at play here as well.
Three board seats--those of Brooks, Aguirre and board president Carlos Avelar--will be up for election in November. Aguirre, who recently bought a home outside the district, may leave before theelection if her current home sells first.
Superintendent John Baracy, the district's first Anglo superintendent in at least a decade, was barely ushered in on a 3-2 vote. Baracy left his post as assistant superintendent at Phoenix Union High School District, replacing Alejandro Perez, who was ousted in another 3-2 vote by an African-American majority.
A lot of folks wanted Sherwin Allen, an African American who was acting superintendent, instead of Baracy. And African-American board member Linda Armstead has felt some heat from the community for supporting Baracy, with whom she worked at Phoenix Union.
Baracy's immediate attempt at reorganizing the district didn't pass muster with longtime board members, which, in turn, nearly bought them another recall.
In political shorthand, if Townsel beats this rap, it could mean Baracy's job, something Baracy has apparently chosen to ignore.
"My concern is to do what I believe isright for children in this district," Baracysays. "This is an issue of a violation of contractual obligations. I have no choice."
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If Baracy had not brought forth charges against Townsel, he likely would have been accused of covering them up.
Meanwhile, Townsel has other irons in the fire. He's listed as a board member of the Superior Learning Academy Charter School in Phoenix, which is currently seeking approval from the state.
There will be a trial in Roosevelt, one that's likely to stir emotions and generate some pricey legal fees--provided Townsel requests a due process hearing.
If he does not, he's history.
But then again, Charles Townsel already has a history.