Arizona's Chief in the Eye of Storm As Lawsuits and Allegations Swirl By

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PHOENIX--An attentive newspaper reader following the fortunes of Arizona's public schools could well come to the conclusion that the state education system is in an unusual degree of crisis.

Over the course of the past year, Arizona educators have been hit with a series of investigations, allegations, and disputes that, taken together, would seem to go well beyond those plaguing other states. The publicized problems include:

  • Controversy over the personal and professional life of the state schools chief;
  • Charges of contract fraud within the state education department;
  • Evidence of fraud involving a school district on an Indian reservation; . Contentions by federal officials that the state is ineligible for impact-aid payments because of the inadequacy of its school-finance system;
  • A lawsuit challenging the fairness of school funding; and
  • Battles over a tight state budget that could endanger efforts to achieve a consensus on school-reform measures.

Sitting calmly at the center of this maelstrom is Superintendent of Public Instruction C. Diane Bishop, who defends her record after nearly five years in office and contends that she is taking aggressive steps to counter problems that are largely the fault of her predecessors.

In an interview in her office at the state education department here, Ms. Bishop argued that much of the unfavorable publicity that has dogged her and the department in recent months is motivated by partisan political maneuvers designed to remove her from power.

A Democrat elected to a second term last year, Ms. Bishop says she has been unfairly targeted by some Republican politicians and the editorial writers of the influential Phoenix daily, The Arizona Republic.

"A lot of the [criticisms] I get are slams at my Democratic status," she said. "Education [in this state] is very political."

Interviews with a number of educators, parents, and other observers here last month suggested that many agree with Ms. Bishop's assessment.

Supporters say the superintendent is a competent administrator and champion of education who is struggling to run an ailing system in a state where a large portion of the adult population is made up of out-of-state retirees who have little direct stake in the schools and strong incentives to keep taxes low.

Bishop allies also argue that while the highly publicized problems may, to a certain extent, have eroded already shaky public support for education, they have yet to damage the morale of classroom teachers and local administrators.

"The public, in general, tends to become discouraged when they hear what's supposed to be going on," argued Kay Lybeck, vice president of the Arizona Education Association. "But there's a lot of indictment and no proof.'

A Negative Tally

A tally of negative news items that filled the front pages of local newspapers over the past year-many of which now fill the dockets of local courts--tends to reinforce the perception that public education in the Grand Canyon State is a troubled enterprise.

The spate of difficulties could be said to have begun last fall, when then-Attorney General Robert K. Corbin announced a sweeping investigation into alleged misuse of federal grants by influential former school administrators.

Investigators contend that the trail eventually led to James D. Hartgraves, a former deputy state superintendent of public instruction, who they say conspired with Daryle E. Cue, a former local school superintendent, to misappropriate as much as $2 million in federal funds.

Mr. Hartgraves, who allegedly masterminded the scheme, is scheduled to face trial in February for his part in what Mr. Corbin described as the largest public-fraud case in Arizona history.

Meanwhile, soon after Ms. Bishop's re-election, the Republic published a lengthy article alleging that Ms. Bishop had been absent from work for long periods during the first months of her new term.

Various sources, some of them unnamed, argued that Ms. Bishop's troubled marriage--which reportedly has caused some highly publicized incidents of alleged drug misuse and domestic violence--were causing her to neglect her duties.

Ms. Bishop, who insists that Republic editors overplay negative news both about herself and the state's school system, indicated in an interview with Education Week that she was considering legal action against the Arizona paper for inaccuracies contained in the story.

Subsequently, reports of an alleged sexual battering inflicted on Ms. Bishop by her estranged husband led the head of the state Republican Party to call for Ms. Bishop to resign her post in the interests of propriety. But Fife Symington, the state's newly elected Republican Governor, immediately repudiated the remarks and defended Ms. Bishop's right to remain in office.

The string of crises continued this spring, when the U.S. Education Department, in the first such action it has ever taken, threatened to cut off impact aid to the state after ruling that the state's school-finance system was inequitable. The state is appealing the ruling. (See Education Week, June 19, 1991.)

Almost simultaneously, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit on behalf of the state's property-poor school districts, arguing that the school-finance system was inequitable because it rendered many districts unable to borrow sufficient funds to upgrade and improve their facilities.

This summer, two former aides to Ms. Bishop filed a civil suit alleging that they had been fired for complaining that state workers were coerced into working on Ms. Bishop's re-election campaign.

Also this summer, state and federal law-enforcement officials revealed allegations that local contractors and former officials of the Window Rock School District, on the Navajo reservation in the remote northeastern portion of the state, had colluded to defraud the district of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some of the money, the law-enforcement officials alleged, was used to pay for parties at topless bars in Phoenix and at a brothel in Nevada.

Some of those allegedly involved pleaded guilty in exchange for lighter sentences, while some indictments in the case are still pending.

'Strands' But No 'Cloth'

Ms. Bishop and other educators argue that, while regrettable, the various incidents do not constitute a pattern of ineptitude or criminality at the state level.

"I think there are a lot of strands," Ms. Bishop said. "But they don't weave a whole cloth."

Ms. Bishop also maintains that she has sought vigorously to root out corruption and incompetence. She contends, for example, that it was her office that was responsible for bringing the Hartgraves case into the public spotlight.

The attorney general's office has given credit for discovering the alleged thefts to a sharp-eyed employee of the state auditor's office, however.

In any case, Ms. Bishop argues, the investigation--which focuses on a period long before she took office-is not a reflection on the education department's overall character.

The superintendent argues that the Hartgraves affair was an isolated case, and that the state's actions against those allegedly involved will discourage future wrongdoing.

Prosecutors involved in the ongoing Window Rock case, however, allege that evidence continues to accumulate that some of those allegedly behind the contractor kickbacks may have had similar dealings in other parts of the state as well.

Ms. Bishop also rejects criticisms of the state's education-funding system. The effort to hold back Arizona's impact-aid funds, she says, is the product of inconsistency on the part of federal officials rather than any failing on the part of the state.

"That's the call of a bureaucrat in D.C. ," she said. "That has nothing to do with us."

Budget Turmoil

While those investigations and disputes continue, the state's fiscal problems are posing an additional set of strains on the education system. The legislature this year cut state education aid for the first time in years.

One potential casualty of those budget woes may be Governor Symington's efforts to heal old animosities and provide new direction for the public schools.

In late April, the Governor appointed a bipartisan committee to study the state's education system and make recommendations for bringing it into line with national reform movements.

While the task force works to build consensus, however, long-standing disputes continue to fester. A possible flash-point for an all-out fight could be provided by a tactic being considered by the A.E.A. to express its dissatisfaction with the legislature's financial support for education.

Union officials this summer angered editorial writers and some lawmakers by suggesting that teachers boycott the businesses of legislators who did not support "adequate spending" for education.

While no action has yet been taken on the proposal, the A.E.A is studying the proposal and may yet implement such a boycott, officials said.

For her part, Ms. Bishop said she continues to forge ahead with her agenda for school improvement. Asked to comment on a newspaper story that quoted her as saying that while she might seem "paranoid" that she did have "enemies," she said that, to the extent that she holds her post in a hostile political environment, the statement reflects her outlook.

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Pages 1, 20

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