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Douglas takes fight over Education Board staffers to court

Diane Douglas

Diane Douglas

State schools chief Diane Douglas filed suit late Friday to force Board of Education staffers to submit to her direct control – and return to her agency’s offices.

Douglas wants a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to declare that the board’s employees “work for the Department of Education and report to the superintendent.” Conversely, she wants a ruling that, under Arizona law, the education board, whose members are appointed by the governor, do not exercise direct control of their staff.

And she wants an immediate order requiring the 11 employees, who moved a week ago to their own separate offices without Douglas’ consent, “to return to work at the superintendent’s office … and submit to the direction of the superintendent.” Douglas also wants court authorization to fire workers who refuse.

Board President Greg Miller said the move a week ago was made “expeditiously” to keep from disrupting the board’s work.

“The superintendent’s lawsuit is a distraction from that work,” Miller said. And he said that despite what Douglas is doing the board “will continue to function as an autonomous constitutional entity.”

Calls to the board’s attorneys were not immediately returned.

Fridays’ lawsuit caps what has been a chilly and often hostile relationship between Douglas and the board in the four months Douglas has been superintendent.

Douglas contends her election last year provided a mandate to implement the policies on which she campaigned. That notably includes scrapping the Common Core academic standards the board adopted in 2010.

It is the board, however, that is empowered to make such policy decisions. And Douglas is only one member of the board.

The board not only backs the standards, but has continued to award contracts for testing linked to them. More to the point, the board has instructed its staffers to implement those policies – policies contrary to what Douglas wants.

A month and a half after taking office in January, Douglas attempted to fire Christine Thompson, the board’s executive director, and Sabrina Vazquez, her assistant. Douglas called the pair “two liberal staff who have publicly stated they will block all efforts to repeal or change Common Core.”

Gov. Doug Ducey, who appoints all the board members except Douglas interceded to direct state personnel officials to ignore the order and keep the pair on the payroll. Douglas eventually relented and they went back to work.

But problems have persisted, with board president Greg Miller and Michael Bradley, Douglas’ chief of staff, each accusing the other’s employees of causing problems.

The board voted last month to seek new office space. And last week they moved out their computers and files to the Capitol tower, where the governor is located, and even severed their electronic ties to prevent Douglas staff from intercepting voice messages and emails.

That apparently was the final straw, precipitating the lawsuit.

Douglas’ attorney, Stephen Tully, pointed out that state law says the school superintendent “shall direct the work of all employees of the board,” even making them employees of the Department of Education. And it empowers her to direct the “executive, administrative or ministerial functions” of the board and its employees.

But the law may not be as clear as Douglas contends.

The statutes also say it is up to the board to employ its own staffers and determine their duties. Tully, however, also notes that hiring is done “on the recommendation of the superintendent of public instruction.”

“The system is not complicated,” Tully wrote in his legal proceedings, saying that Douglas is the “executive officer” of not only the department but also the board. He said that, because board employees “assist the superintendent” in carrying out the duties of the board, the staffers “must be people the superintendent can trust and direct.”

More to the point, Tully contends that, since the board’s employees work under Douglas’ direction and control, “once hired, her ability to fire is the same as any other employee.”

The lawsuit might have been avoided had state legislators adopted some changes in statute designed to clarify who had control of what.

It would have repealed the language that gives the state schools chief the right to “direct the work of all employees of the board” and clarified that the state schools chief plays no role in hiring or firing the board’s executive director. But the legislation faltered and never was enacted.

No date has been set for a hearing on Douglas’ request for an injunction to force the board staffers back to her offices and her control.

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