In January, new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas offered a message to state leaders: “Stop the madness.”
But events since then suggest the madness was only starting.
Here is a timeline of Douglas’ first months in office, so far a string of constant controversies.
Speaking to lawmakers in the House Education Committee, Douglas unveiled her plan to mold the Common Core standards into more of an Arizona creation.
She said the changes to Arizona’s standards would come incrementally and in moderation so as not to disrupt the education system. She also complained that Arizona’s students have become guinea pigs to test fads and theories.
“I call on this Legislature and the governor to stop the madness and put our children first,” Douglas said.
Douglas’ top aide fired the top two administrators for the state Board of Education, setting up a legal showdown between the board and the Department of Education.
Greg Miller, president of the board, confirmed that Christine Thompson, executive director, and Sabrina Vazquez, assistant executive director, were fired and escorted out of the Department of Education building. Miller said he doesn’t think Douglas’ chief of staff, Michael Bradley, had the legal authority to fire the executives.
Miller said the firings were an attempt to shut down Common Core, the learning standards that Douglas vowed to get rid of during her run for the office. He said Thompson and Vazquez were carrying out the board’s policies on Common Core.
Sally Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said she could not comment on personnel matters.
Douglas lashed out at Gov. Doug Ducey after he overturned her attempted firing of the two state Board of Education employees, accusing him of infringing on her statutory and constitutional duties and of surrounding himself with a cabal of Common Core supporters.
Douglas asserted that she has the right to hire or fire Board of Education employees. She noted that a law says the Board of Education can hire staff “on the recommendation” of the superintendent of public instruction.
“Governor Ducey apparently views himself as both governor and superintendent of schools,” Douglas said in a press statement.
“We don’t think anybody’s been fired,” Ducey told reporters. “The board has the legal authority, and they have not yet acted. So that’s where we are.”
The standoff between Douglas and the Board of Education ended, at least temporarily, as Thompson and Vazquez walked into the Department of Education, nearly a week after the superintendent attempted to fire them.
Several days earlier, the board demanded that Douglas allow Thompson and Vazquez back into their offices and restore their access to their official email accounts, computer equipment, phones and documents.
The conflict threatened to reignite when Douglas sought to impose new conditions on Thompson and Vazquez, including that they now report directly to the superintendent. Mary O’Grady, the outside counsel hired by the board, rejected those conditions, asserting to Douglas’ attorney, Steve Tully, that the superintendent lacked the authority to impose them.
A state senator proposed stripping 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 gives Douglas and all of her successors the right to “direct the work of all employees of the board.” And it would require Douglas to cooperate with the staff of the board in executing the policies enacted by the board.
Police were investigating threats made against the state schools chief and a former Senate minority leader, Leah Landrum Taylor, who is the department’s special projects director, Bradley said.
He said Douglas turned over to police eight emails from eight people that could be construed as threatening because they were disturbing, personal and not political, although they did not include specific threats of death.
The bill designed to prevent future fights over who controls employees of the state Board of Education died in the Arizona House after conservatives revolted against what they saw as a weakening of the state school superintendent’s power.
Douglas revealed plans to set up a committee to review the state’s education code. She said the state’s education laws fill a 1,000-page volume and are in need of a review. She wants the committee to look for outdated, unnecessary or harmful sections of the code.
Saying she wants to hear the concerns and suggestions of Arizonans with a stake in education, Douglas said she would hit the road on a 14-stop tour around Arizona
Charles Tack, a Department of Education spokesman, said the “We Are Listening” tour is something Douglas has wanted to do since taking office in January. The first stop was April 23 in Kingman and the tour is scheduled to end June 20 in Springerville.
Saying the situation for their employees had become intolerable, the state Board of Education moved its staffers and computers out of the Department of Education building.
The staffers relocated to the Executive Tower after they packed up their files and equipment this past weekend from the education offices further east on Jefferson Street. They also have their own email system and website.
Douglas filed suit 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 Board of Education, 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 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 sought court authorization to fire workers who refuse.
Already embroiled in one lawsuit, the state Board of Education gave schools chief Douglas until the end of the day on May 19 to give its investigators unfettered access to teacher records or possibly end up in court.
The 7-1 vote came after Thompson said her investigators lost their ability to view teacher records online after board staff moved out of Douglas’ office on May 9.
Douglas ignored the board’s ultimatum, leaving board members to decide what to do next.
— Includes information from Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services; Cronkite News; The Associated Press and the Arizona Capitol Times staff.