Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why Honest, Independent Boards of Education Matter

In my forty years of political awareness I have never read a more bizarre or shocking story about the administration of schools. It is indescribable.

From An "F" for Effort by Sarah Fenske, New Times, Phoenix:
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."
Considering John McCain's presidential bid, one can't help but wonder how this could be going on under his nose without comment.

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