Published Online: December 12, 2006
Published in Print: December 13, 2006, as Panel to Supervise 3 Schools for Homeless

Panel to Supervise 3 Schools for Homeless

Superintendent's indictment raises questions on future.

A local judge has appointed a panel to supervise three Arizona schools that serve homeless children, following the indictment of the superintendent who oversees them.

Maricopa County Superintendent Sandra E. Dowling pleaded not guilty last month to 25 charges related to financial mismanagement of the regional district that operates the Thomas J. Pappas schools.

The schools, which educate a total of about 800 students at an elementary and a middle school in Phoenix and an elementary school in Tempe, were teetering on the brink of closure after money woes caused the district to miss its payroll the day before Thanksgiving. Other school districts in Phoenix and Tempe offered to take in the children, but were not planning to keep the three buildings open.

But the appointment of the panel by Superior Court Judge Kenneth L. Fields on Nov. 30 allowed the Pappas schools to get a $200,000 infusion of cash to pay their staff members and stay open.

Dina Gerdon, the principal of the 450-student Phoenix Pappas Regional Elementary School, said last week she was proud that her staff had come to work even when the teachers didn’t know when they were going to be paid.

“In the past few days, we’ve gotten away from what Pappas is all about. We’ve gotten into what I call the adult problems,” Ms. Gerdon said. “I one hundred percent believe we will survive the adult problems. We have survived this far.”

Ms. Dowling is accused of stealing $1.8 million from the district, rigging bids, and spending $207,000 on lobbyists to further her own political career, among other charges. Her supporters say the accusations are baseless and driven by jealousy and politics. Others charged in the case include three district administrators and Ms. Dowling’s 30-year-old son.

Unique Schools

The Pappas schools, named after a Phoenix advocate for the homeless, have an unusual governance structure. Arizona’s county superintendents, who are elected, usually assist other districts on financial-management issues. However, they also have the authority to establish “accommodation districts” for students not being served by the regular schools. Ms. Dowling, who is in her fifth four-year term, also oversaw education for juveniles in detention centers. The Maricopa County district educates a total of about 1,600 students.

The district is one of four nationwide that have schools just for homeless students. The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, reauthorized in 2001 as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act, says school districts must integrate homeless students into regular schools. However, McKinney-Vento made a specific exception for the Pappas schools and three small schools in California. The exemption for the Pappas schools and the schools in California will expire when the No Child Left Behind Act is reauthorized, unless Congress acts to extend the provision.

The 16-year-old Pappas schools have received national media attention, from magazine and newspaper articles to profiles on “60 Minutes” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” ("Home Sweet School," Jan. 26, 2000.)

As a one-person board, Ms. Dowling managed all aspects of the county’s accommodation district. That power is at the root of her legal problems, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said in a statement released on Nov. 20, the day of Ms. Dowling’s indictment.

“Sandra Dowling knowingly put herself as the sole authority over large sums of public and private money and proceeded to misuse that money for her personal and professional gain,” Mr. Goddard said. “She was supposed to help homeless and troubled children. Instead, she was helping herself.”

Craig Mehrens, Ms. Dowling’s lawyer, said the indictments are “not claiming that the money went in her pocket.” Many of the problems could be bookkeeping errors, he said.

The creation of the oversight panel is intended to put the district back on a stronger financial footing.

“The judge made it very clear that what he wanted us to do was provide some financial stability,” said Chuck Essigs, one of the panel members selected by Judge Fields. Mr. Essigs is the director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, and served as the assistant superintendent for business services for the 75,000-student Mesa district.

The case against Ms. Dowling has fueled a local debate about whether separate schools for homeless children are necessary.

Closing the schools abruptly would have been wrong, said Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state schools superintendent who is counseling the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which has been critical of Ms. Dowling.

But the next several months should bring serious conversations about whether such schools are needed in their current form, Ms. Keegan said.

Maricopa County has 12,000 children who are classified as homeless, the vast majority of whom are educated in neighborhood schools, she said.

Before the McKinney-Vento Act was reauthorized in 2001, she acknowledged, “these kids were getting passed around. It was not a good situation for them.” But now, she argued, districts are much more adept at dealing with the needs of homeless children.

The Pappas schools, which Ms. Keegan said spend 25 percent of their budget on administrative costs and 39 percent on teachers, are not the best place for those students, she said. Test scores of the students, compared with those of their homeless counterparts in other Maricopa County schools, also bear that out, according to Ms. Keegan.

“Right now, it isn’t working,” she said of the separate system.

But P. David Bridger, the head of the Maricopa County Schoolhouse Foundation, a fundraising organization for the Pappas schools, said neighborhood schools cannot meet the special needs of Pappas students. The schools offer clothing, hot meals, and medical care. Buses pick students up at shelters. Without the schools, he said, the children would lose needed stability.

“We have right on our side,” Mr. Bridger said. “You can’t take away what these children have every day.”

PHOTO: Sandra Dowling, the superintendent of the Maricopa County, Ariz., regional school district, appears in court in Phoenix on Nov. 29 with her lawyer, Craig Mehrens, to plead not guilty.
—Christine Keith/The Arizona Republic/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 15, Pages 5,12

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