‘Fired’ employees back at work, but Douglas imposes new conditions

Jeremy Duda//February 17, 2015

‘Fired’ employees back at work, but Douglas imposes new conditions

Jeremy Duda//February 17, 2015

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas.

State schools Superintendent Diane Douglas acquiesced to the Board of Education’s demand that she allow two of its employees back to work after she attempted to fire them, but imposed a set of conditions that could quickly reignite the conflict.

The superintendent made clear that she has authority over Christine Thompson, executive director of the Board of Education, and Sabrina Vazquez, the assistant executive director, and that she will exercise that authority by requiring them to report to her.

Now, the Board of Education is trying to decide whether Thompson and Vazquez will submit to that authority.

Douglas asserted that she retains the legal authority to fire Thompson and Vazquez, despite the insistence of the Board of Education and Gov. Doug Ducey that only the board can do so. Douglas’ office said she was allowing the pair back to work to avoid escalating the situation.

The board instructed Douglas to allow Thompson and Vazquez back into their offices and restore their access to their official email accounts, computer equipment, phones and documents by 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Minutes before the deadline, the two walked unimpeded into the Arizona Department of Education, accompanied by attorney Mary O’Grady.

But the conflict may not be over. In a letter to O’Grady on Monday, Douglas’ attorney, Steve Tully, said Thompson and Vazquez were fired because they “expressed an unwillingness to report to the superintendent.” Now that they are back at work, Tully said, that must change.

Tully said Thompson and Vazquez may interact socially with other Department of Education employees, but cannot discuss policy issues with or make direct requests of non-board staff at the department. Any such requests must go through Michael Bradley, Douglas’ chief of staff, the attorney said.

And Douglas’ conditions don’t end there, according to Tully.

“Both Christine Thompson and Sabrina Vazquez will also need to understand that they report to the superintendent,” Tully wrote. “The superintendent is legally mandated to direct the work of the employees of the board and cannot do that if they refuse to report to her.”

In reporting to the superintendent, Tully said Thompson and Vazquez must account for their work days, including start and stop times; provide specific details of their scheduled meetings; notify the department of any vacation and sick days; and get approval for all trips, conferences and expenses.

Furthermore, Tully said the board’s Friday vote was illegitimate, and that Douglas will resist any future efforts to usurp her authority.

“Any further attempt by the board to pass ‘policies’ that attempt to eviscerate the statutory duties of the superintendent to manage the department’s employees will be opposed,” Tully wrote.

Board of Education President Greg Miller said Thompson and Vazquez won’t have any issues complying with some of Douglas’ conditions. He said Thompson and Vazquez will route their requests of non-board employees through Bradley, and said Thompson indicated a willingness to do so weeks ago. And since their schedules are already public record, Miller said they’ll have no problem providing those to Douglas.

But he said the board has not yet decided whether Thompson and Vazquez will report directly to Douglas.

“We are concerned. There’s a lot more work to do here,” Miller said. “That last part, the part about reporting back to the superintendent, indicates that there needs to be an approval of the superintendent of what they’re doing. If they’re working as our executive director and deputy director, they’re doing the work as defined by the board not the superintendent. So that’s an area that’s still obviously sticky and tricky.”

Miller acknowledged that the conflict between Douglas and the board could flare up again as a result of the superintendent’s conditions. He said O’Grady is drafting a response to Tully.

“Hopefully, calmer minds and heads will prevail,” he said.

A spokesman for the Governor’s Office could not be reached for comment on Tully’s letter.

Douglas’ dispute with the board and Ducey came to at least a temporary halt Tuesday morning. Thompson and Vazquez told reporters that, “It feels good to get back to the office,” as they walked into the Department of Education after essentially working from home since Douglas’ attempted firing on Wednesday.

After Thompson and Vazquez went inside the building, O’Grady told reporters that they returned to work without incident.

“They’re back at work and we’re hoping that everyone can rededicate themselves to their jobs and let everyone do the jobs they were hired to do,” said O’Grady, of the law firm Osborn Maledon. “This situation has been difficult for both Christine and Sabrina, and they’re just pleased to be back in the office and hopefully get back to business as usual.”

Douglas fired Thompson and Vazquez on Wednesday, arguing that although the two work for the Board of Education, they are Department of Education employees and she has hiring and firing authority over them. But the following day, Ducey said state law grants the board exclusive authority over its employees.

State statute stipulates that the Board of Education shall “employ staff on the recommendation of the superintendent of public instruction.” Douglas interprets that as granting hiring and firing authority over board employees to her, while the board and the Governor’s Office say the authority rests with the board. Douglas also cited another statute stating that the superintendent shall “direct the work of all employees of the board who shall be employees of the department of education.”

The Ducey administration cited a 1985 attorney general’s opinion that said the Board of Education has the authority to hire and fire its employees.

After Thompson and Vazquez returned to work, Douglas reiterated her desire for the Legislature to pass a bill clarifying that the Board of Education has authority over its staff.

Ducey’s comment that only the board has hiring and firing authority over its employees prompted an inflammatory attack from Douglas in which she accused the governor of surrounding himself with a “shadow faction” of charter school operators and Common Core supporters. Douglas accused Ducey of seeking to lower student test scores so he can divert more students from district schools into charters in order to profit their operators, and of depriving district schools of hundreds of millions of dollars so he can give tax cuts to his “corporate cronies.”