The Maricopa County school superintendent is under criminal investigation after a renowned school she founded for homeless children had a budget deficit of $4 million.
Detectives with the county sheriff ’s office on Wednesday raided Sandra Dowling’s office, home and the administrative offices of the Maricopa County Regional School District, looking for evidence of bid rigging, nepotism, malfeasance of office and misuse of public funds, according to a search warrant affidavit.
Dowling, a Republican, is the second county officeholder to be investigated in two years.
Former County Assessor Kevin Ross, also a Republican, was convicted in December 2004 of conflict of interest.
Dowling’s attorney, Craig Mehrens, said the allegations come from disgruntled exemployees of the school district and have left Dowling in shock.
Dowling wears two hats for the county.
She has been elected to five terms as the county school superintendent, whose duties include serving as the fiscal agent for school districts, maintaining records for homeschooled students, and providing services to school districts and private and charter schools.
The budget for that portion of her job is intact, county officials say.
Dowling’s problems are with the Maricopa County Regional School District, which operates the three Thomas J. Pappas Schools for homeless children funded by taxpayers, grants and private donations, Sheriff Joe Arpaio said.
Dowling, 48, opened the first of two Phoenix Pappas schools in 1989 and a Tempe campus at 1640 E. Apache Blvd. in 2001. She also successfully lobbied lawmakers to change federal law so homeless children could be segregated.
Dowling is the sole board member and has full spending discretion for the district, which since 2000 has run budget deficits ranging from $544,000 to $3.7 million in 2005, according to the warrant affidavit.
Dowling asked the County Board of Supervisors about two weeks ago for funds to cover the deficit, but then refused to let them see her books, said Al
Macias, county spokesman.
The Board of Supervisors served Dowling with a civil subpoena to force her to disclose the financial information. Dowling went so far as to try to hide in her car when deputies attempted to serve her with the subpoena, the search warrant said.
County auditors estimate the deficit to be as high as $4.2 million now, Macias said.
Mehrens said Dowling’s civil attorneys have been working with the county’s attorneys to provide the records they want.
Mehrens pointed out that Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, conducted an audit of Dowling’s deficit in November and found “three basic justifiable reasons” for it: Unfunded transportation costs, excess utilities and the county equalization shortage.
Current and former employees interviewed by detectives said, however, that Dowling had questionable spending practices and used the district to provide employment to her family.
A check of financial records by the sheriff’s own internal auditor found that Dowling’s spending practices were “abnormal and potentially unlawful,” the warrant states.
Allegations at a glance
Some of the allegations against Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools Sandra Dowling:
• Dowling’s son earned $32,000 as a teacher’s aide for the Maricopa County Regional School District while he developed his landscaping business.
• Dowling’s son won the district’s landscaping bid — with annual billing of $25,000 to $40,000 after all other bids were found to be invalid.
• Dowling’s daughter was hired as an assistant principal, and to get around her lack of state-required qualifications, was given the title of “coordinator.”
• Hired legal counsel at a cost of $156,000 over three years when she had free access to the county attorney’s office.
SOURCE: Search warrant affidavit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court.