Time is running out for embattled Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools Sandra Dowling to deal with residents who don’t pay taxes to any school district. A new law forces residents, such as those in Scottsdale’s Troon neighborhood, to vote in November to either join a school district or form their own.
The new law requires Dowling to hold two public forums and prepare a tax information pamphlet prior to putting the district issue on the Nov. 7 ballot.
But with a July 10 deadline to comply with the law, Dowling — who is being investigated on suspicion of nepotism and misuse of public funds — has not done that.
“She has some other issues on her plate. I think this probably is not the most important thing in her life, but she’s got to do it,” said Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, who sponsored the new law.
Dowling said she wants to get moving on the issue, but is awaiting a legal interpretation of the law from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
“I could move forward, I just don’t think that would be a wise thing to do because you’ve got to make sure all the legal questions are answered, in case somebody decides to contest it,” she said. “This is a pretty contentious issue on both sides.”
She said she must wait to find out how to draw the boundaries for the election, how to formulate pro and con statements and how, exactly, to write the ballot language.
The county attorney’s office declined comment.
Dowling also is waiting to find out if she needs to attend both public meetings or not — she’ll be out of town during July. She also said her chief of staff, Ben Arredondo, is resigning June 29.
“They need to hurry up and get these meetings posted,” said Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, sponsor of another law approved this spring that updates the 2005 legislation.
But if the county attorney, or Dowling, drops the ball, heads won’t roll.
“Typical with education law, there’s no penalties if she does not,” Gray said.
In January, Maricopa County sheriff ’s deputies raided Dowling’s home and office, seizing 35 cabinets of documents.
“I know these guys want to blame a lot of things on the investigation, but the sheriff’s office is putting a heck of a lot more time into it than I am,” Dowling said.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio said the investigation is going “favorably” and will be concluding very soon, but he declined to give a date.
Dowling doesn’t deny the investigation hampered her work at first.
“You get helicopters flying over your back fence and looking into your window at 6:30 in the morning, watching you sleep — it will scare the bejeebies out of you,” she said, describing the investigation.
About 10 days after the raid, she said, she returned to work.
“From that day forward, I’ve come into work every day, done everything I needed to do,” she said. “It’s expensive because the attorneys are having to put in a lot of time into it, but as far as me, personally, its business as usual.”
She estimated that, at most, the investigation consumes 10 percent of her time.
And some parents say Dowling has stayed on the ball in her official duties, such as registering home-schooled students.
“She’s always been very, very responsive to the homeschoolers, and I haven’t seen anything change,” said Tami Lopez, who directs the Salt Seller, a legal organization for home-schooling families in the Valley.
But some northern Scottsdale residents have said Dowling hasn’t been responsive when they needed her help with forming a new school district.
RESOLUTION “LONG OVERDUE”
The district issue revolves around a 12-square-mile area in north Scottsdale that belongs to the state’s “unorganized territory.”
Residents of the area, which includes the upscale Troon community, pay lower property taxes because they are assessed only a Maricopa County school tax, not a district tax.
Voters in the area have repeatedly rejected attempts to join a school district, most recently last fall when they soundly defeated a measure that would have annexed them to the Paradise Valley Unified School District.
So in 2005, lawmakers crafted the bill that requires the residents to vote in November to either join a district or form their own.
Citing flaws in the original bill, four legislators sponsored a bill in the spring that makes some changes, such as requiring two question-and-answer sessions before the election is called. Allen said that addition came about after Dowling irked residents and lawmakers when she held a public meeting before last November’s elections and refused to allow lawmakers to answer questions.
Last month, several members of the newly formed Citizens for a Unified School District met to reveal their plans to form their own district in Troon.
At that meeting, members of that group said they met with Dowling on Nov. 28, but that they’ve been unable to meet with her since.
“I have been calling her daily for six months, sometimes twice a day,” Pat Flynn said. “We just can’t get a meeting.”
Graham Kettle, another Troon activist, refused to comment further.
The men plan to hold their own public forum Monday.
Representatives of the three school districts — Paradise Valley, Scottsdale and Cave Creek — that will be affected by the vote said Dowling’s office has remained mum about the election.
“I’ve heard nothing whatsoever,” said Kent Frison, an administrator at the Cave Creek Unified School District.
The law requires school districts to mail a pamphlet to voters by Aug. 7 that includes information about their property taxes.
“This is an issue that is long overdue to be resolved,” said Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent John Baracy. “We will continue to wait for direction from the county superintendent’s office.
Dowling said she usually returns phone calls, but that she has run out of things to say to the Troon homeowners.
“It’s not that I’m ignoring them,” she said. “I already met with them once. I said to Pat Flynn, until the county attorney gives me an answer, I really don’t have anything I can discuss.”
Investigation timeline January
• Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office launches a criminal investigation into the district’s finances, taking 35 file cabinets from Sandra Dowling’s office and home.
• An audit found the district has a budget deficit of $4.7 million and has failed to maintain proper record keeping.
• Audit also finds the district hired four of Dowling’s children and a son-in-law, which was allowed by district policy but not state law.
• The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors votes to withhold funds to the district.
• Dowling says the investigation is politically motivated.
• The school district files a lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors, claiming the board’s action overstepped its legal authority.
SOURCE: Tribune research
Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools
• First elected 1988
• Now serving fifth term
• Oversees Maricopa County Regional School District, composed of 12 schools with enrollment of about 1,600 students, including Thomas J. Pappas Elementary School for homeless children in Phoenix, a county juvenile detention school in Mesa and Guadalupe Regional High School alternative program.
• Serves as one-person school governing board.