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: