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Board moves staffers out of Department of Education

State schools chief Diane Douglas at a meeting of the state Board of Education chaired by Greg Miller. Miller said that hostility by Douglas and her staff resulted in the board's decision to move its employees out of the Department of Education building.  (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

State schools chief Diane Douglas at a meeting of the state Board of Education chaired by Greg Miller. Miller said that hostility by Douglas and her staff resulted in the board’s decision to move its employees out of the Department of Education building. (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

Saying the situation for their employees had become intolerable, the state Board of Education this weekend moved its staffers and computers out of the Department of Education.

Board members now are in the Capitol Tower after they packed up their files and equipment this past weekend from the education offices further east on Jefferson Street. They also now have their own email system and web site.

The fact that the move took place is itself no surprise. Board members last month authorized Christine Thompson, their executive director, to look for new space.

But the weekend move and the new computer system – one totally separate from the education department – was done without notice until it was already complete.

The move comes three months after Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of public instruction, fired Thompson and Sabrina Vazquez, her deputy. She said they were trying to undermine her agenda.

That provoked a political firestorm, with Gov. Doug Ducey concluding that Douglas lacked such authority and directing his Department of Administration, which handles human resources, to keep them on the payroll.

Douglas eventually backed down and the staffers went back to work after the board hired its own attorney.

But when legislation to clarify who had the power over the board faltered, the old problems resurfaced.

Miller said a majority of other board members – Douglas also sits on the board – were still sore over her attempt to control their staffers. And they said the failure to enact that clarifying legislation left open the possibility of a repeat attempt.

“You’ve created the environment that’s not beneficial to getting the board’s work done,” he said. And Miller said Michael Bradley, Douglas’ chief of staff, made comments after the last board meeting in April that he and Douglas believed they still have the authority to terminate the board’s staffers.

And that’s just part of the problem.

“They changed all of the electronic authority to where all of their voicemails and/or emails could be read by the chief of staff,” Miller said.

Bradley did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

But he clearly had his own viewpoint of the problems – and who is at fault.

“The Board of Education staff are creating a hostile work environment,” he wrote in an email last month to Kirk Adams, Ducey’s chief of staff. He said two board members – their names were redacted from the email – were reported for “several verbal confrontations and attacks on Arizona Department of Eeducation staff in elevators and while walking by.”

And he claimed one board staffer – again, the name is redacted – verbally “assaulted some of our staff … and would not leave the area despite at least three attempts to ask her to return to her work area.”

Having separate office space should at least deal with at least those issues.

“All the geography does is create a working environment that’s not daily and hourly hostile,” Miller said of the move of his board’s staffers. “And, basically, we can move forward.”

But Miller said he expects the legal disputes to continue over whether Douglas has the power to fire the board’s employees.

“We’ve taken a legal position that she didn’t have the authority to do that,” he said.

“They’ve taken a position they do,” Miller continued. “My guess is that if they push forward, we’ll end up in the courts trying to resolve it because they have not been willing to sit down and talk about it.”

Much of the dispute has its roots in the Common Core academic standards the board approved in 2010.

Douglas was elected largely on her vow to dismantle the academic standards. But the board stands behind them and awarded a $19 million contract to design AzMERIT – Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching – a new test linked to Common Core.

In firing Thompson and Vazquez, Douglas said they were “two liberal staff who have publicly stated they will block all efforts to repeal or change Common Core.”

But Douglas also has been at odds with the governor.

In defending her decision to fire board members, she also criticized the governor for backing “a shadow faction of charter school operators who support Common Core and moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.”

During his own campaign, Ducey also criticized Common Core. But after being elected he told the board they should not immediately scrap the standards but instead review them.

“In any instance during your review you find situations where Arizona standards can outperform or improve our current standards, I ask you recommend replacement immediately,” he said.

And Ducey even said he does not want to scrap the AzMERIT tests.

“AzMERIT is going to be in all our schools,” he said. “And it’s going to continue to be in all our schools”

Douglas also has accused Ducey of refusing to settle the ongoing lawsuit over whether schools are due more money to comply with a voter-approved law requiring annual adjustments to compensate for inflation, calling his action “a justification to deprive schools of hundreds of millions of dollars to give to his corporate cronies as tax cuts.”

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