PHOENIX — Saying the situation for their employees had become intolerable, the state
Board of Education this weekend moved its staff and computers out of the Department of Education.
Board members now are in the Capitol Tower after packing up their files and equipment over the weekend, relocating from the education offices further east on Jefferson Street. They also now have their own email system and website.
The move is no surprise. Board members last month authorized Christine Thompson, their executive director, to look for new office 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 done.
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 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.
When legislation to clarify who had the power over the board faltered, the old problems resurfaced.
Board President Greg Miller said a majority of the board members are still sore over Douglas, who also sits on the board, attempting to control the staff and fear the failure to enact clarifying legislation left open the possibility of a repeat conflict.
He charged Douglas had created an environment “that’s not beneficial to getting the board’s work done,” he said, pointing out Michael Bradley, Douglas’ chief of staff, said after the last board meeting in April he and Douglas believe they still have the authority to terminate the board’s staffers.
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.
In an email last month to Kirk Adams, Ducey’s chief of staff, Bradley said, “The Board of Education staff are creating a hostile work environment.”
He accused two board members — their names were redacted from the email — of “several verbal confrontations and attacks on Arizona Department of Education 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. “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.”
Douglas also has been at odds with the governor, who she has criticized for backing “a shadow faction of charter school operators who support Common Core and moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.”
Although Ducey criticized Common Core during his campaign, he rather that seeking to dump the standards, he told the Board of Education to review them and identify “situations where Arizona standards can outperform or improve our current standards” and recommend changes.
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.