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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.


Sandra Dowling

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.

By definition, these students come from difficult circumstances. Even more than most students, they would have benefited from smaller class size.

Instead, Dowling corralled them.

There's more. As the receivers write, "there is no evidence that teachers were provided a curriculum other than being given a set of the state standards. Further, there is little evidence that teachers were given materials aligned to the standards and that meet the needs of the learners."

The district, the receivers continue, hasn't had a curriculum for eight years. Nor, for a time near the end of Dowling's tenure, did the Pappas elementary school have a special education program, as mandated by federal law. During a staff shortage, Dowling transferred the special ed teacher to a kindergarten class, Haas says. (Fortunately, the receivers have changed that.)

As I read the receivers' reports last week, I couldn't help but think back to a conversation I had with Sandra Dowling last June.

When I asked why Pappas students did worse than homeless kids in other schools, Dowling gave me a bizarre answer that only became truly appalling in retrospect.

Those statistics can't be right, Dowling told me. There's no way to break out test scores for homeless children in regular districts.

At the time, I wondered if I had my facts wrong. I didn't.

The receivers' report makes it clear: It was Dowling who didn't have the facts. The state can, indeed, track the scores of homeless students, no matter what district they're in. Haas, the ASU professor, did just that. Her study revealed how badly Pappas students were doing.

More than the financial improprieties, more than the self-promotion, that fact may be the scariest thing about Sandra Dowling.

She ran the special schools for homeless kids in Maricopa County for 16 years. She fought for, and got, a special exemption to keep them open, even as the feds shuttered homeless schools around the nation. She even wrote op-eds calling herself an expert in educating the homeless.

She never bothered to figure out what data was available on Arizona homeless kids' academic performance.

She had no idea these students could do better than bad, that other districts had figured out ways to help them learn.

She never did her homework.

I've got one more Sandra Dowling story, a story that should make it irrefutably clear that the state simply must revisit the oversight bill that Dowling has been lobbying against.

I heard this one at the receivers' meeting last week. And I'm still trying to pick my jaw up off the floor.

This meeting focused on the schools that Dowling's district runs for the Maricopa County juvenile detention centers.

And if Dowling did such a bad a job running the schools that were constantly in the news, you can only imagine how god-awful she was at running schools that no one really cared about. Haas says the detention schools "withered from neglect."

It's not just their textbooks, which, in some cases, were more than 20 years old. It's also the issue of course credit.

Kids in lockup are required, by law, to get four hours of school every day. As you can imagine, these students are traditionally far from motivated. Why should they be? For years, many school districts refused to accept credit for classes taken in the slam — or made credit transfer so difficult, the kids just gave up.

"The students would say, 'Why should I work hard here? I get no credit for it,'" says Dottie Wodraska. As the "correctional educational specialist" for the Arizona Supreme Court, she helps oversee juvenile detention programs run by the counties.

As Wodraska explained at last week's meeting, she understood that lack of credit was a real problem. So she took on the task of getting Arizona's juvenile detention schools accredited. That meant fairly rigorous education standards, but it also meant that credits could easily transfer back to "real" schools.

As Wodraska relayed, she shepherded every county juvenile detention system in the state through the accreditation process — with one exception.

And that exception is the big kahuna when it comes to juvenile justice in this part of the state: Sandra Dowling's fiefdom in Maricopa County.

At the meeting, Dowling's people were climbing all over each other trying to explain what happened, but the gist was pretty clear: Dowling dropped the ball.

The Supreme Court paid application fees for any county that wanted to go through the process. Wodraska says the only criteria was that the districts fill out the right paperwork and meet the right standards.

But at some point, Maricopa County dropped out of the process. Staffers told Wodraska that the district would handle accreditation on its own. Problem is, no one got around to it.

Dowling either didn't realize that until it was too late, or she just didn't give a hoot. Wodraska says that Dowling approached her after one of her presentations on the accreditation process. "She asked why Maricopa County wasn't involved," Wodraska said. Wodraska had to tell Dowling that the district — Dowling's own district! — had chosen not to participate.

Even at that point, Dowling failed to redeem herself.

Dowling didn't pick up the phone and call the principal of her detention system. Instead, Dowling told Wodraska to call him.

Dowling's arrogance is galling. She was too much of a big shot to call her own employee. She had to tell a state employee to do it.

Still, Wodraska made the call. But the principal told her that the district was choosing a different route. Wodraska then followed up with Dowling, telling the superintendent that she'd have to take it from there. "I can't give directives to someone else's employees," Wodraska explained.

Last December, every other detention school in the state got its accreditation. But the thousand-plus kids who'll spend time in Maricopa County's lockup this year got shafted. Undoubtedly, a good percentage of them were stuck in classes that they'll never get credit for.

Haas says she believes that Dowling's administration intentionally dropped out of the accreditation process. "I think they were hesitant to have any oversight," she tells me.

That's absolutely appalling. And it's yet another reason why districts like Dowling's need the oversight that comes only with an independent school board.

On the other hand, with a real school board, Sandra Dowling wouldn't get away with such arrogance and such complete incompetence. No wonder she rolled out a sleeping bag at the Capitol.

After Representative Anderson's school board bill died in committee, State Senator Jake Flake, the Republican from Snowflake, introduced a bill with the same idea. He won a unanimous verdict in the House, only to lose the vote in the Senate, twice.

Flake believes Dowling's lobbying played a role. "She took it as a personal affront to her," he says. "It's not. I just want our county school superintendents to act as administrators — not the judge, the jury, and the executioner."

Unbelievably, though, Sandra Dowling still has the ear of some of the smartest politicians in town. Just look at the roster of senators who voted against the bill: It includes Democrat Leah Landrum Taylor and Republicans Jack Harper and Carolyn Allen.

Harper tells me that he was concerned that efforts to change the system were part of Maricopa County's vendetta against Dowling — when she may yet be found not guilty of all charges. He says he refused to support the bill after its proponents rejected a delay that would keep changes from going into effect until 2009.

"It really appeared that they want to get her out of there fast," he says.

Harper is right about that. But after reading the receivers' reports, it's hard to blame them.

Dowling's one-woman show has been disastrous for this county's school children. And the faster we scrap the system that allowed her to flourish, the better the chance we'll never have to deal with this level of ineptitude again.

It's too bad the Senate did the wrong thing. Again.

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