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Proposal would strip schools chief Douglas of power over state school board employees

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas.

A state senator is proposing to strip state schools chief Diane Douglas of much of her control over employees of the Board of Education.

The proposal by Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, would remove language that now gives Douglas and all of her successors the right to “direct the work of all employees of the board.” And it requires Douglas to cooperate with the staff of the board in executing the policies enacted by the board.

Potentially more significant, the amendment to SB1038 would clarify once and for all that the state schools chief plays no role in hiring or firing the board’s executive director.

That had been the practice in the past. But Douglas insisted the wording of the statute empowered her to fire not only Christine Thompson as the board’s executive director but also Sabrina Vazquez as her assistant.

Douglas backed down, at least temporarily, after Gov. Doug Ducey said she lacked the power. But the superintendent of public instruction insisted she was right and said she wants the law clarified or, failing that, threatened to sue.

Ward’s proposal does provide that clarification – though not necessarily in the way Douglas wants.

SB1138 does make Douglas, already one of 11 members of the state board, its secretary. And Ward told Capitol Media Services she’s willing to consider other changes before the measure is set for debate Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Greg Miller, who chairs the state board, is pleased with what he has seen so far.

“I think the proposed changes make it really very clear as to who’s responsible for what,” he said.

Sally Stewart, Douglas’ press aide, declined to discuss the specifics of what is now in the proposal. But Stewart said the language “is very close” and that Douglas “remains committed to working to resolve this matter, with minimal cost to Arizona taxpayers.”

The fight of who controls – and can hire and fire – board employees is more than a question of power. It goes to the issue of whether the schools chief can effectively veto board decisions.

This is critical now because the board has not only approved the Common Core academic standards but has directed its staff to implement a new set of tests linked to those standards. The board wants the AzMERIT – Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching – to be ready to administer this spring.

Douglas, by contrast, won election last November largely on a promise to dismantle the standards. And Douglas, in explaining her decision to fire Thompson and Vazquez, essentially said they were thwarting her efforts, calling them “two liberal staff who have publicly stated they will block all efforts to repeal or change Common Core.”

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