An "F" for Effort

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.

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske