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Despite the lousy test scores, despite all the activists and experts raising concerns, it wasn't until Sandra Dowling ran out of money that the question of whether to segregate homeless kids really became an issue.

Maricopa County has long subsidized Dowling's district, to the tune of about $530,000 annually. But Dowling had begun to run up deficits in recent years, and after she asked for an additional cash infusion last year, the supervisors looked at the books and realized she was $4 million in the hole.

(Dowling disputes that figure, saying the district has only a "cash flow problem.")

But that's when things got ugly. County Auditor Ross Tate says Dowling refused to supply invoices and payment information, at the supervisors' request, so the supervisors got a subpoena. And though Dowling literally hid under a pile of coats rather than be served with it, eventually the supervisors obtained most of the records they wanted.

Those they didn't get, ostensibly, ended up in the hands of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose SWAT team showed up at Dowling's doorstep and seized even more papers.

After auditor Tate spent months poring over the books, he pronounced that Dowling's finances were in terrible shape. He also revealed a host of irregularities, including all those Dowlings on the payroll that everybody had been whispering about for years.

(As it turned out, all four of Dowling's children, plus one son-in-law, had been hired at various points to work for the district.)

"As early as the 2003 fiscal year, the leadership at the regional school district knew they had a problem, but they just continued spending," Tate told the supervisors at a meeting in April.

But while the supervisors were clearly livid about the sloppy finances, they didn't just look at the books. In hopes of understanding how to address the district's problems, they hired the retired Murphy School District superintendent, Bob Donofrio, as a consultant.

His conclusion: In an age where every school district is working to serve homeless kids, the Pappas Schools had become redundant.

"The landscape of public schools has dramatically changed over the last decade," he told the supervisors.

And Donofrio, who'd led a school district with many low-income students, knew what he was talking about.

After studying the issue, Donofrio said, he realized that more than 40 percent of the students at Murphy fit the federal definition of "homeless." (If a family, for example, is "doubled up" with an aunt or grandparent, they are technically homeless and eligible to enroll at Pappas.)

"Most schools, especially those dealing with poverty students, now realize that in order to reach student learning outcomes, they cannot only concentrate on the academic side," Donofrio said. "They must also deal with the social service side, to stabilize families and offer an array of services."

Fourteen other districts were willing to take the Pappas students, Donofrio said. Some offered to run the schools themselves with "little or no" county subsidy — and these were districts with much better records of academic success.

In May, after budget negotiations reached an impasse, the supervisors voted to shut down the Pappas Schools.

But after lying low for a few months, Dowling had begun an offensive.

First she filed suit, challenging the supervisors' right to close the schools.

Since her longtime public relations director, Ernalee Phelps, left the district last year and has yet to be replaced, Dowling had hired P. David Bridger, former community relations director at Channel 10, to raise money and handle public relations. With his raspy Rod Stewart accent, Bridger outlined the case for keeping Pappas open to any reporter who would listen.

At the Pappas Elementary School, volunteers and teachers began to sport purple ribbons. They discussed holding a candlelight vigil outside the school. Although that never came to fruition, giant banners begging the community to save Pappas soon hung outside the school.

Last week, as Judge Margaret Downie heard arguments in the court case, there was no room for theatrics — but also no word about education.

As Downie explained, the law didn't allow her to consider whether the schools were providing a good education, or even whether they should be kept open. She was only to decide whether the supervisors had usurped her authority.

Still, about a dozen teachers showed up to hear the thick legal arguments, all wearing bright purple shirts.

A group politely declined to talk to me, although principal Dina Vance did chat briefly with the TV cameras outside the courthouse.

"Pappas provides what other school districts don't," she said. "It's a stable environment, a place where all students are the same. We're all a family."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske