Journalists’ Roundtable

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Three local journalists will discuss the week’s big stories.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable, reports of threats against the state schools chief and a top assistant. And the legislature offers a solution to the dust-up between the schools chief and the governor. The Journalists' Roundtable is next on "Arizona Horizon."

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable. I'm Ted Simons. Joining us tonight: Jim Small of "The Arizona Capitol Times;" Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services; And Bob Christie of The Associated Press. Superintendent of public instruction Diane Douglas and her special projects director Leah Landrum Taylor notified police of threatening messages they received this week. Jim, what's this all about?

Jim Small: This is a story that one of my colleagues wrote this week. Basically, some harassing and threatening e-mails and letters and packages had been sent to both Diane Douglas and Leah Landrum Taylor and even Leah Landrum Taylor had her tires slashed. She discovered on her way to work earlier this week. Anger I think seemed to be we didn't get a whole lot of indications, whole lot of details about what was in the letters but, you know, some anger, especially at Leah Landrum Taylor for being a democrat and working for someone who certainly is very conservative.

Ted Simons: I know this followed a series of meetings with the black community and the naacp there. Is there any connection there? Maybe regarding someone who could have been at the meetings.

Jim Small: They really release a whole lot of details. They turned everything over to the police. I think Phoenix police has been working on it and I would imagine they are, as well.

Howard Fischer: And all this is indicative of the amazing amount of vitriol on all sides over the issues of common core, the firings that were related to common core, who's funding education, do you like Doug Ducey, do you like Diane Douglas? Where does Christine Thompson fit into this? And no one is talking rationally, not at the legislature, not the debate that we cover, and it's all become a matter of emotions and that's what spills over.

Ted Simons: Isn't there a bill to clarify this dustup as I call it between the governor and Diane Douglas? Aren't we on the road to something here?

Bob Christie: The deal has been cut. The legislature this week amended a bill that would put in statute what the governor said, which is Diane Douglas has no power to fire the board's executive director and Diane Douglas was down at the committee hearing and said this week I support this, this shows that I was right all along, I want to clarify things, and I want to save the taxpayers money. It was spin in its best --

Howard Fischer: Exactly, and that's the darnedest thing. I saw the bill, I listened to the speech and I said did she get a different copy of this legislation than the rest of us? It made it very clear, hiring and firing of the board employees, done by the board. Who pays the board employees? Through the department of administration, not the state department of education.

Ted Simons: And she wanted travel reimbursements, she wanted hours, she wanted okay's for schedules and meetings and the bill says no, no and no.

Bob Christie: And this -- I think her presentation to the education committee in the Senate on Wednesday was designed specifically to say Doug Ducey and I are now friends. The governor spoke with her, met with her, supposedly called her on Valentine's Day, he told us on Monday, and then he said, you know, we're fine. We're going to work together.

Howard Fischer: And here's the thing: How long is that going to last? Even after that, she sent out a release at one point saying well, I like what's going on but Doug shouldn't have cut this in the budget. This is not a truce that's going to last. This is going to get nasty. She said publicly she doesn't believe that Doug Ducey is really committed to his campaign promise of getting rid of common core. She has lobbied the legislature for more money even as Doug has done his shell game of we'll move a little here. This is a truce that's not going to last.

Ted Simons: There are reports today showing how much classroom spending, nonclassroom spending is out there and the governor saying that this is, you know, we've got to get more money to the classroom, and then Diane Douglas applauding teachers for how much they're doing with what they have in underfunded schools.

Bob Christie: That's true and if you look at classroom spending over the last seven years, the differential between classroom spending and support spending, which includes administrator, school busses, air conditionings, buildings has gone down, and that's primarily because state funding has gone down. As the governor probably knows, you have fixed costs in a business, if you sell less ice cream, those fixed costs still remain the same. The differential changes.

Ted Simons: It sounds like the report showed that administration spending stayed the same.

Howard Fischer: Actually it depends on how you define - pure administrative, superintendents, you know, the attendance clerks, we are actually below the national average, and it's stayed the same as a percentage. Where we run higher are our utilities, transportation, you have school buses and the support services and I was talking to chuck Essex from the school administration association, he said look, you've got charter schools out there who are recruiting kids because they can go to those schools. They're not actively recruiting the kids with disabilities so the school districts are left with a higher proportion of kids with disabilities, who need the guidance counselors, who need the speech pathologists which are also nonclassroom expenses. This gets to the category of what's classroom? Coaches are classroom. You know, the band is classroom. The counselors, the librarians are not and that becomes a whole different issue.

Bob Christie: And the poorer the district, the more children who are on free and reduced lunch programs, that's a nonclassroom expense. So if you have as we see in the recession, as the number of children in the state who are qualifying for free federal and reduced lunch, that counts against nonclassroom spending.

Ted Simons: And we're talking about spending but we're also talking about common core. The Senate votes to preserve common core. So what's going on out there?

Jim Small: Well, you know, it's essentially what we've seen the past couple of years. They don't have the votes in the legislature, as much as there may be a furor in a lot of circles and Diane Douglas got a lot and Doug Ducey came out opposed to it during the campaign. The reality is at the capitol there aren't the votes to undo or block common core and to direct the state board of Ed to do something else.

Bob Christie: And part of that is cost. The state's already spent a huge amount of money to implement this plan and Diane Douglas has come out and said listen, I don't want to eliminate it right away, I want to slowly change it over time because we've already invested the money. The other thing that's happening at the legislature which I find really interesting is the same thing that happened last year, efforts to increase our voucher program, the empowerment scholarships accounts, efforts to increase the school tuition organizations, that's running into a roadblock, primarily because the legislature, a majority of the legislature, not necessarily the conservative Republicans, a majority of the legislature believes that schools are underfunded and if you're taking money into these voucher programs and more to put into new testing in place, that's going to take away from the public schools which have 80% of the kids.

Howard Fischer: That's the key. On a lot of those programs they say there's a cap on them but that cap can increase 20% a year. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out 20% a year, you compound it out and you've got 600, $700 million being put into voucher programs, being put into alternatives that you say well wait, what about the kids who are stuck in the neighborhood schools simply because those are the ones they can walk to?

Ted Simons: Didn't the bill that senator Kelly ward was behind, didn't it let school districts develop their own tests and if you wanted common core you could keep it and if you didn't want it you didn't keep it -

Howard Fischer: I've heard that line, if you like your common core you can keep it. I think this was meant as a backstop, the idea we want local choice. The problem becomes is how do you then compare district a to b to c and then how do you compare Arizona to the rest of the nation? That was the problem with aims. Everyone said are we 46, 48, 49th? There's no comparison. Common core and the tests that link to them would have provided that. This is a nice local control issue but then you've got another bill going through that the house voted on earlier this week to say and parents can keep their kids out of those tests. How does that help to get the kind of data you need?

Ted Simons: What does Governor Ducey do, if these things do eventually reach his desk, where you've got to make a decision on common core, you've got to make a decision on the tests that come with common core? What's he going to do?

Jim Small: I don't know. Honestly. I don't know that any of us do because it was a campaign statement, he opposed common core and he wanted Arizona to have its own standards. What does that mean exactly? Do you repeal common core or statutorily block us from participating or does it mean that maybe you find a way to take what exists as common core and gussy it and put some cactus stickers on it and call it Arizona plan?

Howard Fischer: Aren't these standards, it isn't common core, we're already going down the road. We started under that with governor brewer and superintendent huppenthal.

Ted Simons: One more thing on education before we move on. Dueling robo calls regarding the governor's education budget and the Mesa superintendent here?

Bob Christie: This actually started a couple of weeks ago when two or 300 school superintendents sent out letters to all their kids and then the Mesa school district superintendent used his automated phone system to call parents and advise them call your legislator, tell them that this budget proposal from the governor underfunds our schools and a group which had supported Governor Ducey in the election responded quickly and did their own robo calls. That kind of tells you that the governor is touchy about this. If he wasn't nervous about it, you wouldn't see a group that backs him probably.

Ted Simons: Isn't it interesting that they were in tandem on this?

Howard Fischer: But it doesn't matter, this isn't a political campaign. Everybody talks about it's the dark money group. It doesn't matter. This is not a ballot measure or anything else. Even if they would have called up and Doug could have called Sean noble and said can you do this for me? It doesn't matter.

Ted Simons: That's what was interesting. The initial response focused more on the fact that it was a dark money group that's calling on behalf of Ducey, they can do that,

Jim Small: Absolutely. And they've been able to do that I mean forever under Arizona law. There was a group I remember 10 years ago probably that sent out mailers going after, you know, in districts for legislators who were opposing governor Napolitano's things. Dark money wasn't coined as a term back then but it was an issue advocacy thing, did the same thing back then.

Ted Simons: The thing here, though, is what they said, the critics are saying, not accurate, that Mesa spends nearly half outside, well below the national, that wasn't accurate. The idea that you're not talking, as you said, about everything from air conditioning to school buses, that was not in the robo call. They're calling it misleading at best.

Bob Christie: And, you know, it's hard to be absolutely factual in a 30-second phone call. If you want to make your message. They were not accurate.

Howard Fischer: And that's a problem. I've got a story for the papers tomorrow on this latest auditor general's report, took me 1,100 words to describe all the intricacy of this. You're never going to do this in a 30 second call. It's shocking to think that somebody would do a robo call and just give you their side of the spin.

Ted Simons: When you say Mesa spends less than half their money outside the classroom, more than half outside the classroom, and you don't describe what outside the class really means --

Bob Christie: It is not fair. And, like I said, you cannot have schools and it's nice to say we want more money in the classrooms but you've got to have the classroom buildings, the air conditioning, the buses, the school counselors, you've got to have all these other supportive services, and I think the governor is probably nervous that he -- his budget, although he says it funds $130 million more for classrooms only gives $11 million more to school this year. That's a flat budget, no matter how you look at it and he's worried that schools are going to get the parents behind him.

Ted Simons: Department of child services, the new chief, has decided to get rid of the investigative unit that investigated the new chief?

Howard Fischer: You had two investigative agency within child safety when it was created, some of it which carried over from the old des. Greg Mckay says look this office of special investigations was there, had a bunch of cops to look at what was going on in the agency. And he said do I need cops investigating myself? If I've got a problem I could call in police myself. He said I want to put the bodies on the ground, I want to put them where they're needed. Now, of course all this got mixed up with the whole issue as we're slowly finding out how greg McKay purposely inadvertently shoved aside his predecessor, Mr. Flanagan. It's been interesting to see the dynamics that took place and did Flanagan screw up in terms of not reporting certain things? Perhaps. Did McKay's report, was it a little overblown? Perhaps. So this very wonderful little behind-the-scenes play is playing out in the public.

Ted Simons: And I know that your paper had a response from Flanagan who's had a chance to say something because we've had everything from an initial memo from Greg McKay saying there could be illegalities, and now, he's saying no more pet projects. He's got to crawl from under the bus eventually.

Jim Small: And he spoke to us today and he defended his actions and what he did as director in really launching this agency and what he said were, you know, massive improvements in the way the child safety system operates and really pushed back against the idea that there were things that were illegal that were happening and that the priorities were wrong. He said we were always prioritizing the safety of kids first but you have to balance that with the reality that you've got to clear this back log of these thousands of cases which is what you're tasked to do and told by the legislature to do first. You're trying to strike that balance between doing a lot of this paper work stuff with going out and putting people out in the field to deal with these kids.

Howard Fischer: There are always going to be situations that slide through the cracks. You can go back and you can look and say they should have known, and I could look and say my god if I had seen that report I would have gone out there. You've got an overworked staff and the fact is that things are going to happen and much as we could 10,000 case workers out there and children are still going to die.

Ted Simons: But still the internal investigations, the accusations of sexual comments, harassment, those sorts of things. What's that all about?

Bob Christie: This is a big bureaucracy and there's stuff that goes on inside and Flanagan thought he needed to get real eyes on. Now that they've gotten rid of this, what McKay says is we can do this administratively. Well, who is going to do the investigation? If it's criminal, you bring in some police but you've got to find out if it's criminal in the first place.

Howard Fischer: But the question becomes do you have a standing police force within the agency? That becomes a question which you've only got x number of bodies, are you better off saying I can put them in the office of child welfare investigations, I can do something else and that's a judgment call that every director makes.

Bob Christie: But that said, Flanagan put them in there intentionally because they had such serious problems before. And so if you want to change the culture of a big bureaucracy like that, which is charged with these investigating horrible crimes, not taking children out of the homes too quickly, not leaving them in one hour too long. Thousands and tens of thousands of cases and, you know, you've got to have some accountability, and I think that's what Flanagan apparently was trying to do.

Ted Simons: And taking them out too quickly seems to be a special concern, that pendulum always goes back and forth. It's over there on that side right now.

Jim Small: And that's been one of the troubling things I think Governor Ducey started mentioning in speeches more, 16,000 some odd kids that are in the foster care system, it's a number that's been growing, and it's disturbing a lot of people both in the child welfare community and within the governor's office.

Howard Fischer: That goes to what greg McKay said. He said if we can get out there and provide the family the services they need, provide the oversight, maybe we can prevent it from going back three weeks later and taking the kids out. The idea of prevention. Now that said, the legislature did not fund a lot of the prevention efforts, whether it's subsidized childcare or something else so for all the talk about protection, then the rubber meets the road.

Bob Christie: And the governor swept the grandparent pensions to help grandparents who end up with their children's kids.

Ted Simons: Right. We've got a couple of minutes left here and something going to happen later in the day, regarding is it a tax, is it a fee? What's going on regarding Medicaid and the lawsuit against the whole nine yards, quickly, please.

Bob Christie: As we know about a week before governor brewer left office, the Supreme Court said yep, the lawmakers, you can sue the governor over this assessment. Which pays for the Medicaid expansion. Well, it's been really quiet ever since then. Nothing has happened and the Supreme Court has sent the case back down to the trial court. Finally, today there's been a filing some dates set, July 10th we're going to have oral arguments focused solely on whether or not the hospital assessment which pays for 300,000 people to get insurance in this state is a tax that requires a two thirds vote --

Howard Fischer: Which it didn't get. And that's the key. That's what we're down to here.

Ted Simons: And that's what we're down to here. And we didn't even talk about plan b as far as education funding is concerned.

Howard Fischer: There is no plan b, on this one, there is no plan b. I mean, you know, the Senate president may say we can find a way to keep some of these people on even if we don't bring the $175 million or whatever it is a year from this hospital tax assessment levy, whatever you want to call it but the fact is there is no plan b. The problem they've got is the same problem the Republicans in Congress have. If you take away people's insurance, what do you replace it with? That's the problem with killing Obamacare, what do you replace it with?

Bob Christie: And we're filling holes. We have hospitals that aren't near bankruptcy because they're finally getting some compensation. This is a big problem for the governor and interestingly he took his name off this lawsuit today to defend it.

Ted Simons: What is that all about? What does that mean?

Bob Christie: I don't know. Jan brewer automatically was replaced by Doug Ducey when Doug Ducey came into office. I don't know why. Now, it's just the access director who's the defendant, I don't know if that's cover for the governor, if it's just for the convenience of not having to serve so many people.

Ted Simons: Is this one of the reasons we're not hearing a lot of budget talks, negotiations? Because the goal posts are moving all over the field?

Jim Small: Negotiations are happening, things are happening at the capitol. It's just a matter of what kind of a budget, you know, if they pass a budget quickly, are they going to have to come back and do it? This Medicaid issue not going to be settles before they're done with the budget. We're looking at at least a year, year and a half out before we get a final answer on that. Education will get more clarity in the next few months.

Ted Simons: We've got to stop it right there. Good stuff. Thanks guys, appreciate it.Monday on Arizona Horizon, the president of the State Board of Regents weighs in on cuts to university funding. And we'll preview this year's edition of baseball spring training in the valley. That's Monday at 5:30 and 10:00 on "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. That is it for now. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great weekend.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Jim Small:Journalist, Arizona Capitol Times; Howard Fischer:Journalist, Capitol Media Services; Bob Christie:Journalist, Associated Press;

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