March has gotten off to a lousy start for Maricopa County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling. The attorney general is investigating her office. Her school district expects a half-million-dollar budget shortfall next year.

And now a disgruntled county schools employee says she will file paperwork this week to launch a recall of Dowling.

News of the AG investigation first leaked out last week. Days later, Dowling spokesman David Oboyski said that the Maricopa County Regional School District expects a $540,000 budget shortfall next year because of declining enrollment.

Oboyski says there may be layoffs as a result of the shortfall, but it's too soon to say for sure.

"We don't want to send a panic all through the district that there are RIFs coming, when there may not be," he says.

Meanwhile, it's likely there will soon be at least one fewer teacher in the Maricopa County Regional School District. Connie Comprone, a teacher at West Valley High School--part of the district, of which Dowling is the sole board member--says she was transferred to another school after speaking out at a February 12 school board meeting and handing out a flier at school urging parents to attend such meetings. Comprone refuses to accept the transfer--to Estrella Mountain High School, far from her home--and says she will give up her job, if necessary.

Comprone says she was concerned about a request that would have allowed four district administrators to attend a National School Boards Association conference in New Orleans this April, given the district's money crunch. She learned of the request at the February school board meeting, and voiced her protest at the time.

Oboyski now says that only he will attend, along with Dowling, whose trip will be funded out of a separate budget.

This is not the first time Comprone has spoken out. She was quoted extensively last year in New Times ("Board Games," August 28, 1997), complaining about salary inequities, nepotism and what she views as Dowling's autocratic tendencies.

Dowling staffers will only comment that Comprone's transfer was in the "best interest of the district." Comprone suspects it's because classes at Estrella Mountain end at 3 p.m., rather than noon, as at West Valley. School board meetings are held monthly, at 1:30 p.m.

Comprone says she spent two hours last week with state attorney general investigator George Finch. The AG's investigation is focusing on possible criminal misconduct by Dowling, including private consulting trips she may have taken on county time and at county expense, as well as alleged campaign-law violations, Comprone says.

She says she told Finch she remembers that county schools employees put up signs and gathered petition signatures on county time, during Dowling's 1996 reelection campaign. Comprone also told Finch that Sandra Dowling's son, Dennis, has worked for the district since 1996. Most recently, Dennis was promoted from office clerk at $8 per hour to registrar at $11 per hour at West Valley High School.

Comprone asked how much longer the investigation would go on. "[Finch] said that as long as they did not indict . . . they have all the time in the world," she says.

Both Dowling's and the AG's offices refuse to acknowledge the existence of an investigation.

John Huppenthal, a Chandler Republican and chairman of the Arizona Senate Education Committee, says he, too, is unaware of an AG investigation. Huppenthal says he met with Dowling last fall to discuss complaints Comprone had shared with him about salary inequities--and her suggestion that the Legislature consider passing a law that would add members to the regional school district's board.

Of his confabs with Dowling, Huppenthal says, "We had three separate meetings. We went through all the issues. We agreed to a package of things that we thought would go to the core of the issues: that [Dowling's office] would do an employee job-satisfaction measure; that they would start a parent rating of the quality of education . . . [and] they would review their salary structure."

He adds that he followed up with Dowling's office by phone to be sure they'd hired the consultant. (They have.)

"There was a mistake I made--we didn't get all this stuff in writing," Huppenthal admits.

In fact, Dowling's office has not released any results from the consultant's review.

But Huppenthal remains optimistic.
"I think she's running a good shop," he says of Dowling. ". . . The people who have been out to her schools, the people that understand her schools and the clientele she's providing services to, by and large, they think she's doing a good job. So I'm reluctant to go in and say let's do something."

Comprone's not reluctant at all. She needs to gather 144,000 signatures to qualify for a recall. If she's fired for refusing to transfer schools, Comprone says she'll have ample opportunity to organize a campaign.

"If the woman [Dowling] had just left me alone, and just let me be and work with the kids, I never would have had this time on my hands," Comprone says. "She only has herself to blame for this."

Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: [email protected]

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at