Idaho's New Schools Chief Battered by Controversies

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When Anne Fox was elected Idaho's state schools superintendent last fall on a back-to-basics platform, State Sen. John Hansen hoped his G.O.P. colleague "would surround herself with the best and the brightest staffers, and get the [education] department operating like a Swiss watch."

So far, though, the agency has operated more like a storm-tossed ship with an inexperienced crew, many observers here say. In just two months in office, Ms. Fox's missteps have generated as many headlines in Idaho newspapers as the O.J. Simpson trial. She has:

  • Fired a half-dozen top department officials, among them the chief of the school-finance division--just as the state was implementing a new aid formula.
  • Hired her campaign manager as her top deputy, only to fire him after the media reported that 10 years ago he had pleaded no contest to contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charge had been reduced from one of soliciting sex in exchange for drugs.
  • Leased a new car for $580 a month and spent $8,000 to redecorate her offices.
  • Given a speech at the statehouse to representatives of the United States Militia Association, a conservative paramilitary organization that supported her campaign. One local newspaper columnist called the group "the black-booted members of a self-appointed civilian army."

Low Ratings

Even Ms. Fox's response to her negative press coverage has gotten her into trouble. In her speech to the paramilitary group, according to the Associated Press, Ms. Fox cited a friend's comment comparing her first few weeks in office to the persecution suffered by the Holocaust victim Anne Frank.

The state's news organizations have also scrutinized Ms. Fox's past. She served eight years as an administrator in two Idaho school districts from 1978 to 1986, and resigned after two years as the superintendent of the Post Falls district--where she angered the local teachers' union by eliminating 10 teaching positions and reducing employee benefits--to become an education professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

In 1992, she returned to Idaho, where she founded a residential facility for abused and neglected children, and worked as a grant-proposal writer.

The latter role led to an ongoing legal battle with the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Coeur d'Alene, a Roman Catholic charity that serves the homeless.

Lynn Gustafson, the group's executive director, said Ms. Fox sued the group, seeking 10 percent of the value of a federal grant she had helped it procure. Ms. Gustafson said the group naively agreed to the arrangement without knowing how much money Ms. Fox had applied for. The group was also unaware it would have to raise substantial matching funds, she said, a requirement that almost caused it to lose the grant.

Ms. Fox contends that she clearly explained her payment terms, and they were spelled out in a proposal signed by the president of the charity's board.

"I had a contract, I did the job," she said. "Then they decided not to pay me after I did the work."

The string of controversies has taken its toll. Some 20 individuals have called the Idaho secretary of state's office to inquire about mounting a recall effort. While Ms. Fox garnered 57 percent of the vote last November, she received a 58 percent negative rating in a new poll commissioned by The Idaho Statesman newspaper.

"I feel I have had some bumps, certainly," Ms. Fox acknowledged in a recent interview. "We feel bad about those, but we've corrected them as quickly as we could."

She and her supporters suggest that any mistakes have been blown out of proportion.

Spate of Firings

Addressing one issue raised in the press, Ms. Fox contended that her decision to lease a new Ford Crown Victoria was a prudent one, as the education department only maintains one vehicle. The agency needed a large car with air conditioning, she said, and a van would have been more expensive. A spokesman added that Ms. Fox drives her own car to work.

A reporter who wrote about the car assumed that it was her personal car without checking, Ms. Fox asserted. "That article ruined my credibility," she said.

But other department officials say that most employees viewed it as a vehicle available on occasion to others but meant primarily for the superintendent's use.

Then there were the firings. Among those tossed overboard were the top science, special-education, school-finance, and food-service administrators. Others resigned voluntarily.

Just last week, they were joined by her spokesman, Patrick Reilly, whom Ms. Fox hired after dismissing his predecessor.

Marian Hylen, the chief of the school-finance bureau for 10 years, said she was dismissed with only a few hours' notice. A colleague, Evelyn Kiler, left soon afterward. They were surprised that Ms. Fox had no one lined up to take Ms. Hylen's place, given that the three-person bureau is responsible for doling out half the state's general fund.

"It just seemed like a huge hole to leave in your planning," Ms. Hylen said.

Ms. Fox says that the department has met all its budget-related deadlines and that she has not had enough time to hire replacements during a hectic period.

Finance Confusion

But that was small comfort to lawmakers faced with preparing the 1995-96 education budget without details of how the funding formula would affect individual districts, information they had always received in the past.

Ms. Fox "unfortunately assumed anyone can do that," said Senator Hansen. "Sometimes, she tends to accept advice from persons who aren't well informed," he said. "It's not a matter of ideology or policy, it's just a matter of nuts-and-bolts work of the department."

State Rep. Ron Black, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, is willing to cut Ms. Fox more slack, contending that the absence of information was caused by the complexity of the new finance legislation.

But Rep. Gary Schroeder, also a Republican, noted that lawmakers were forced to rely on the state teachers' union to fill the void.

"Here we have an administration that is certainly not friendly with the Idaho Education Association," he said, "but at least they have data. She can hire or fire anyone she wants, but we need that information."

Monica Beaudoin, the president of the union, which backed Ms. Fox's Democratic opponent, said even one of the superintendent's aides called to request the I.E.A. 's spreadsheets.

And then there were the aides Ms. Fox was forced to fire.

Terry Haws, her former campaign chief, got the boot when the 10-year-old charge of giving drugs to a minor came to light. Reporters also learned that in January, his driver's license was suspended for inattentive driving, a charge that had been reduced from drunken driving.

And Bill Stanley, who was hired to oversee a new division charged with drawing up generic blueprints for school buildings and had claimed experience in school construction, was fired after the Twin Falls Times-News reported that he had lied on his resume and was little more than a school-furniture salesman.

Ms. Fox traces these problems to the absence of a policy requiring background checks, and she has pledged to be more careful.

She laments the fact that the controversy has taken the spotlight off her education agenda.

Ms. Fox's most high-profile goal is rewriting curriculum standards that she criticizes as amounting to "outcomes-based education." Her platform also calls for training teachers to use phonics, promoting patriotism, and toughening discipline, an area that she proposes hiring a new administrator to oversee.

But her agenda does not all fit into a conservative package. Ms. Fox also supports smaller schools and personalized learning,co paying new teachers more, and increased funding for school construction.

Reaction Mixed

Many state lawmakers, even fellow Republicans like Mr. Hansen, have been critical of Ms. Fox.

Gov. Phil Batt, a newly elected Republican, has tried to avoid the issue. Lindy High, his education aide, said the Governor has pointed out that Ms. Fox is an independently elected official and that he has "encouraged people who have written to him about her to write to her directly."

Public reaction has been mixed.

"I feel she reflects the same conservative values that I want for my children," said Brian P. Hyde, the host of a call-in radio program on KART, an AM station in the Twin Falls market. "If the press would allow her to get to her feet and take even a few steps forward, they might be surprised at what she was able to accomplish."

"Her comments have been very critical of the teachers and administrators in this state, and I felt she was pandering to...the very far right," said Blossom Turk, the principal of Boise High School. "One of the major problems we face in education today is a lack of respect for education as a profession, and I think Anne Fox contributes to this disrespect."

Carole Wells, a parent of four children in the Pocatello public schools, is so angry that she has set up a group called "FoxWatch" to monitor Ms. Fox's actions and to research the possibility of a recall. "The more I watched the lack of leadership she showed," Ms. Wells said, "the more I thought we needed to do something."

The group would have to collect 125,161 signatures to force a recall election. To oust Ms. Fox, 227,258 voters would have to reject her in that election, one more than voted for her in November. Even some of her critics oppose the idea. "It would just be an ugly, divisive, and unsuccessful effort at this point," Senator Hansen said.

Vol. 14, Issue 25, Pages 12, 14

Published in Print: March 15, 1995, as Idaho's New Schools Chief Battered by Controversies
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