Two state agencies are investigating the superintendent and board president of the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind for potential conflicts of interest and excessive travel expenses.
Superintendent Robert Hill and ASDB Board President Bernhardt Jones also have been the focus of multiple protests at school's two main campuses in Tucson and Phoenix over the last two weeks. Students, parents and former employees have called for the two to resign because of a lack of leadership and poor communication with the staff.
Among the concerns:
• Possible conflicts of interest: Hill and Jones have a private business relationship outside their ASDB positions. Jones is the director of TASK12, which administers the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment for a $310 testing fee. Hill is listed as a TASK12 local test administrator at classroominterpreting.org.
Neither Hill nor Jones disclosed their roles with TASK12 to ASDB, its board of directors or the state.
• Burgeoning travel costs: State budget documents show out-of-state travel expenses surged from $15,900 in 2010, the first year after Hill took over as interim superintendent, to $40,100 in 2011 and $29,700 in 2012.
• Employee terminations. Agriculture teacher Richard Layton was fired, the school's fledgling ag program was suspended and its animals were removed from the Tucson campus at 1200 W. Speedway. Longtime administrator Nancy Amann's contract was not renewed. Former ASDB finance manager Leah Morris-Towle, who provided documents to the state's General Accounting Office, was fired.
• Limited access to the school board. The board, which is appointed by the governor, has met only three times since last June, including a special meeting earlier this month. It used to meet every other month.
A regularly scheduled April 25 meeting was cancelled for a lack of quorum. A special board meeting has been called for Tuesday in Phoenix.
Both the state Attorney General's and Auditor General's offices are looking into complaints regarding ASDB.
Neither Hill nor Jones responded to repeated calls for comment. But in a letter to his staff, Hill said falsehoods and rumors were being circulated by a small group of people.
"Unfortunately, individuals have resorted to personal attacks and lies in an effort to punish me and others who have acted in the best interests of ASDB," he wrote.
Student protests at both ASDB's Tucson residential campus and the affiliated day school in Phoenix have demanded the resignations of Hill and Jones and the return of Amann and Layton. More than 1,500 supporters have signed an online petition at change.org calling on the agency's board of directors to "acknowledge the vote of 'no confidence' in Superintendent Robert Hill."
William Koehler, executive director of ASDB's schools for the blind, said the protests have snowballed into something "out of control." Rumors and false accusations have proliferated online, he said.
"Parents need to understand that this has gone beyond a student question about a teacher being let off probation," he said. "Early on in the process, other individuals became involved and it really did lose the focus for the kids."
Conflict of interest
Hill was named ASDB's assistant superintendent in 2005. He became interim superintendent in June 2009 and got the job permanently in April 2010, at a $125,000 annual salary.
Before coming to Arizona he worked with the Nebraska Department of Education as a program specialist for its special education team.
As president of the board, Jones is charged with overseeing Hill's work. Critics say their mutual financial interest in the TASK12 program compromises that goal. They say Jones' testing program profits from every interpreter who pays the $310 fee to take the certification test, and Hill has an interest in funneling candidates to the company.
ASDB employs 65 interpreters, all of whom passed the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment and are certified, the agency's human resources department says. Many have taken their certification tests repeatedly to reach a passing score of 3.5 - and they have to pay each time, said Amann, who was one of two executive directors of ASDB as an agency and principal of the Arizona School for the Deaf.
The Tucson Unified School District employs 30 educational interpreters, all of whom are certified.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office confirmed the office has received a complaint from the General Accounting Office, but would not elaborate.
"We're familiar with this situation and it's being handled accordingly," spokesman Doug Nick said.
Morris-Towle, who worked at ASDB for 21 years, most recently as finance manager, suspected Hill was profiting from on-campus assessment training events held at ASDB during work time and reported her concerns to the state, an email trail shows.
Jones and Hill did not report their business relationship to the school or to other ASDB board members. They should have, said Marv Lamer, a two-year board member.
The Arizona Department of Education says any relationship in which a superintendent and board member are in business together or have a mutually beneficial financial arrangement is a conflict of interest. However, local school districts and governing boards are not required to report that information to the state because it's a local board governance issue, the agency says.
Morris-Towle, who says Hill put her on administrative leave for unexplained reasons last year and fired her in April, noticed an increase in out-of-state travel costs after Hill took over.
Her complaint to the state says she believes some of those travel expenses were related to Hill's work with TASK12, not ASDB.
Jeff Larson, counsel for the state Auditor General's Office, said the office is giving ASDB's finances a closer look, but stopped short of calling it an investigation.
ASDB got a "clean bill of health" in its 2012 financial review, Larson said. But after receiving more information from the state's General Accounting Office, "we're just looking at that in more depth," he said
Students and deaf community enraged
The National Association of the Deaf has joined students, parents and former employees in calling for change at the school.
Association President Christopher Wagner wrote an open letter to ASDB board members after receiving complaints that the school "has been governed by the administration without input from teachers, parents, or students." He said he has received no response to his letter, written after an April 12 visit to ASDB.
Students who set up tents and posted signs in front of the school for an April 20 protest described their actions as a "last resort" after they failed to get any response from Hill or Jones.
They had three demands: Hill's and Jones' resignations, Amann's and Layton's reinstatement and assurance that administrators would not retaliate against employees, student body president Juliana Apfel said through an interpreter.
"We can't continue to let things like that happen," Apfel said.
Amann worked at ASDB for 14 years until Hill placed her on unexplained administrative leave on Feb. 15. At an April 9 special meeting, the board voted 4-3 not to renew her one-year contract. Amann, who is deaf, has filed a grievance alleging gender and disability discrimination.
Layton was still in his probationary period when he was fired April 17 without explanation. Less than a week earlier, an administrator had told him all the animals had to be removed from campus.
"The mentality comes across as anything that may contribute to the growth of ASDB is not seen in a favorable light by the current administration," said Layton, believed to be the first deaf agriculture teacher in the country.
Layton taught blind and deaf students woodworking, welding and planting techniques as they raised chickens, goats and other animals.
Koehler, who runs ASDB's schools for the blind, said the agriculture program is not permanently shut down, but has been put on hold because of a regulation violation. Once the program is in compliance with city regulations, he said, it will reopen.
"We recognize the value of these programs but we also have to recognize there are certain rules we have to follow. Maybe next year we'll have animals on campus, we'll see," Koehler said.
Protests have hit the Phoenix day school as well. Rob Voreck, parent of a student there, said administrators threatened to call the police if parents remained with their children at a Wednesday protest, intensifying the rift.
"Things are at such a fever pitch right now," Voreck said.
Board member reaction
All board members are working with expired terms. The office of Gov. Jan Brewer, who appoints ASDB board members and oversees the agency that runs the school, is searching for replacements, said Matt Benson, spokesman for the governor's office.
Brewer's office is aware of the criticisms against the school. "These inquiries need to have an opportunity to play themselves out," he said.
ASDB board member Sherri Collins said she was taken off-guard by complaints against Hill. She was one of the three board members who voted to keep Amann.
"I felt like she made a contribution to the school. I just felt like she deserved a renewal," Collins said.
She said board members only got 24 hours to review Hill's list of complaints against Amann. Amann herself only received the complaints on the day of the public meeting that would decide her contract.
"That was a concern that I had in making a decision. It didn't feel like it was handled appropriately," Collins said.
Lamer, associate superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education as well as an ASDB board member, believes much of the furor stems from the decision not to renew Amann's contract. Lamer voted against renewing the contract.
Lamer says he will reserve judgment about Hill and Jones' actions until he gets clarity on which criticisms have merit and which do not. He said an outside business relationship between the two should have been disclosed.
But, he said, "in this particular case, I don't think the absence of perfection means that people haven't worked their hardest and with the best of intentions."
On StarNet: Read Superintendent Robert Hill's letter to the staff at azstarnet.com/pdf
Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind
• ASDB is a state agency reporting to the Governor's Office.
• Educates students with sensory impairment from birth to age 22.
• Two main campuses: a day school in Phoenix and a residential campus in Tucson, plus a diagnostic center in Tucson, satellite preschools in Tucson and Phoenix and five regional offices that work with school districts.
• Serves 2,242 students throughout the state.
Source: Auditor General's Office report, 2012
OUT-OF-STATE TRAVEL EXPENSES
• FY 2007: $12,700
• FY 2008: $8,900
• FY 2009: $22,800
• FY 2010: $15,900*
• FY 2011: $40,100*
• FY 2012: $29,700*
* Incurred during Superintendent Robert Hill's tenure
Source: Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind annual budgets
ASDB SPECIAL BOARD MEETING
• When: 1 p.m. Tuesday
• Where: Governor's Conference Room, Capitol Executive Tower, 1700 W. Washington St., Phoenix
Contact Star reporter Jamar Younger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4242.