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, a very public fight between the governor and the state schools chief. And questions over why the governor replaced the director of child safety. The Journalists' Roundtable is next, on "Arizona Horizon."

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Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable. I'm Ted Simons. Joining us tonight: Mary Jo Pitzl of "The Arizona Republic," Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services, and Bob Christie of The Associated Press. Governor Ducey and superintendent of public instruction Diane Douglas are having a bit of a disagreement. [ Laughter ]

Mary Jo Pitzl: Well, as political theater, Ducey, Douglas, this battle is something we haven't seen since the days of the '80s. It started with the superintendent Douglas firing two of the members of the staff at the department of education, the board's executive secretary and an assistant, setting off perhaps a bit of a constitutional crisis because governor Ducey says she doesn't have the authority to do that and thus unraveled one of the more interesting chapters in recent Arizona political history.

Howard Fischer: What's fascinating is on Wednesday after she fired him and on Thursday morning after the governor said, no, she doesn't have the authority, the official word was we're not going to comment, it's a personnel matter. Well, by Thursday afternoon, we all got one of the more bizarre press releases we had seen talking about Doug Ducey giving away millions of dollars for his corporate cronies, setting up a shadow function of charter school operators in the board and accusing him of racism because he hasn't appointed any African-American members of the board. He hasn't appointed anyone to the board but that escaped Ms. Douglas.

Ted Simons: Real quickly, was caught in the middle of these accusations and complaints, the governor's refused to take calls or meetings with me personally since his swearing in. That might have tipped the whole thing right there as far as the reaction being that personal.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And also, the governor held a teletown hall and did not invite the highest elected education official in the state. That didn't go down very well.

Howard Fischer: I think he was afraid what she might say. That's the problem. He has a very narrow agenda in terms of more money for classrooms and we've talked about the shell game on that and he didn't want to get into the whole common core and charter schools and everything else and if you let her in and somebody asks a questions, lord knows she's got followers, all of a sudden, his narrow message gets blown up.

Ted Simons: And bob again, the idea is she fires these two people on the board. The governor says you can't fire people on the board. She says oh, yes, I can and he says oh, no, you can't.

Bob Christie: Exactly and the way it went down was really weird. She had the executive director and the deputy executive director of the board of education, which is separate from the department of education, it's actually the policy-making body. The governor appoints 10 of the 11 members of that and Diane Douglas is a member of the board and they have an executive staff. She didn't like the executive staff. She thought the executive staff embraced common core which she hates and wouldn't listen to what she wanted to say, she had them escorted out by dps. And I asked the governor the next day when he said no that's not going to stand, did you have them escorted back in? He didn't go quite that far. This is an institutional turf battle. Diane Douglas was elected against common core, the board of education is the policy-setting body for the state. And she wants to have control of that, and constitutionally she can't, according to the governor.

Howard Fischer: What's interesting is this gets into the discussion we have every few years about whether certain officers should be elected or appointed. The superintendent of public education has a huge budget, like close to $3.8 billion but most of that is just passed through going to the public schools. It's largely an administrative post where you are keeping track of records, you're keeping track of test scores, you're funneling federal grants, and it's the board that's theoretically under the Constitution to set the policy.

Mary Jo Pitzl: There's still appearing to be an open legal question about was Douglas acting within her authority or was she not? And there was a meeting of the board of education today. I think there was some thought that perhaps there would be a move to go to court to settle this coming out of that meeting. That has not happened but it's probably going to take a court decision to clarify this or new legislation.

Ted Simons: New legislation is what she back-pedaled a little bit saying I don't want to get into a court fight here, I don't want to waste money. Let's clarify this by statute. Is this going to be clarified by statute?

Bob Christie: It could be. It depends on whether the governor wants to throw her a bone or not. I think this was a direct affront on the governor's power and the governor reacted quickly, which the amazing thing to me is the governor she pushed the governor and the governor pushed back immediately. We're seeing these two people who aren't in office a few weeks testing their wings.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And why not try to clarify it with legislation? Who would sign that bill into law? The governor.

Howard Fischer: Here's the problem. The problem is what happens between today and let's even assume you rushed the bill through and have it signed in two weeks. What happens to Christine Thompson? The board's position is I think if Diane had said we will let Christine stay in the interim while we work it out, that would have solved the whole thing. Diane said, you know, I don't know if I'm going to let them in so at 8:30 on Tuesday morning, we're going to be down at the board of education and we're going to see what happens when Christine tries to go in because the order from the board was to let them have access to their offices, computer equipment, e-mail accounts, cell phones and documents to fulfill the duties for the board. Let's see what Diana does

Ted Simons: The order from the board by virtue of a vote with one dissenting vote.

Howard Fischer: I wonder who that could be.

Ted Simons: Douglas seems to say that the board hires and fires on her recommendation, whereas it sounds as if the governor says no, you can recommend all you want but the board hires and fires on its own. Is that basically it?

Bob Christie: That's essentially it and I don't know the history of it because I wasn't in Arizona in 1985 but former attorney general Bob Corbin was asked by the board 30 years ago to provide an opinion on who controls the department of education, it was the reverse back then. Apparently, the board wanted to fire someone who had worked for the superintendent of public instruction and bob Corbin at the time said no those are two distinct operations. The board of education runs its staff and the superintendent of public instruction runs the department of education's staff, there's too many names there.

Howard Fischer: It's real interesting, the statute does say that the board gets to hire its executive director on recommendation of the superintendent of public instruction which raises an interesting question. Let's assume that Christine is gone. She makes a recommendation saying I want this, they say no we want someone else well, a plain reading of the statute says they can only choose from the list of one that she's given.

Bob Christie: Except if a judge looks at this, the board held an agenda meeting where they hired an executive director. If they have to have a vote to hire them, common practice in the world is you have to do the same thing.

Howard Fischer: And what's part of what we got into today is what has been the practice? Tom Horne, Lisa kagen sent a letter saying you're right. John Huppenthal basically told me no, Diane is right. So now, we've got a question of what is precedent?

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think this tangle aside, what this does is this does highlight that the GOP coalition is not all quite hanging together. The state offices are all Republican controlled but, you know, Ducey and Douglas have really split company, and I think I've got to say I loved the headline for pure drama, Arizona superintendent of public schools Diane Douglas did not see Doug Ducey's name on the ballot for state superintendent.

Ted Simons: We're talking snarky stuff here.

Bob Christie: It is the most vitriolic press releases I've seen and what it does in real effect is marginalize Diane Douglas because the governor is new in office, he's the governor of the state of Arizona and another elected official throws not just one hand grenade but eight paragraphs full of hand grenades at the governor. It's not smart.

Ted Simons: Look at it from the other side. Was the governor smart to go ahead to make pronouncements without having an underling do it?

Howard Fischer: I was honestly surprised, I thought he was going to say we're studying it and we may have to amend the law. He made it very clear. Me, governor. Board members, mine. Diane, not so much. And this is a power struggle. What's real interesting when you get deep down into the stuff. Her charges about how the governor favors charter schools and everything else, reducing to settle, she's the populace. She's the one who says wait we're supposed to settle the lawsuit over school inflation funding, we're not supposed to be funneling all the money into charter schools and her believe that the new link to common core is going to drop public school test scores so folks will go running to the charter schools.

Ted Simons: Clearly, he has established a shadow faction of charter school operators and former state superintendents who support common core and who support moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools. That's a Republican saying that.

Bob Christie: That's the Republican saying that. The interesting thing is last week here new chief of staff Michael Bradley testified in front of the education committee and said, you know, I want to let you all know, I know she campaigned on getting rid of common core but that was because she was a clean elections candidate and she really doesn't mean it. What she wants is to do move common core slowly over the next 10 years in a better direction and change it and mold it and I watched that and I go that's interesting, let me tuck that away. And, no, then we have this this week.

I think one of the things that she did with this eight paragraphs of very interesting prose is that she articulated what a lot of people have sort of been saying, yeah, that is the governor's education agenda, it is many people believe he's out to benefit charters only. He says no I'm not, this is going to help district schools as well but we have not seen any details of his proposal and absent those details people are filling in saying, well, we do see all these charter school operators around and we see these choices favoring school superintendents standing behind him. She's sort of saying what's on a lot of people's minds.

Howard Fischer: What goes along with that is her comments about giving tax breaks to his cronies while screwing the public schools.

Ted Simons: Justification to deprive schools of hundreds of millions of dollars to give his corporate cronies tax cuts.

Howard Fischer: Well, this is the issue. There are tax cuts we've talked about it on the show, they have not yet kicked in for major corporations. A couple of hundred million dollars and you could solve much of the budget problem, not all of it by simply saying we're going to freeze the tax cuts that are already there. He said no way. Meanwhile, while he keeps talking about the $134 million, he says he's put in the classrooms, that's a shell game. Most of that comes from other funds. We're talking $11 million out of close to $4 billion and there's nothing really there.

Bob Christie: Absolutely. [ Laughter ]. With school funding, the issue, the governor in his budget provided an extra $74 million to fund inflation. Well, the judge has already ruled you owe $331 million and $336 million on July 1st for schools and they're just ignoring it. They're pretending it's not there. They're not putting the money in there to do it and Diane Douglas as you have said is saying no, you need to restore this money.

Ted Simons: And if this is now heading to court, attorney general Mark Brnovich has to say bye-bye to both sides. He has conflict of interest.

Bob Christie: He conflicted out within an hour of it coming out.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Dodged the bullet.

Bob Christie: The board of education had a new attorney who's well respected for doing a lot of election things and a lot of other government action and Diane Douglas asked well who appointed her? And the board president said well actually, the attorney general called me and said I'm not going to represent you, here's the attorney who will.

Howard Fischer: Yeah, and this is the thing. We still haven't really gotten an answer about who she's getting her legal advice from. I don't think we ever got a call back on that.

Bob Christie: In this press release, she attacked the head of the board of education, implying that he was trying to line his pockets because he's a charter school operator by implementing the new A.Z. merits test and therefore making schools fail which would drive more people to his charter schools.

Ted Simons: Which was an accusation that I believe he responded to?

Howard Fischer: He said this is wonderful, I wasn't personally offended because I took it as the ranting's of someone who's under emotional stress. I mean, wow.

Ted Simons: That's one maybe reword that one.

Bob Christie: I asked him to repeat it, I said say that just a little bit louder for the microphones and he says no thanks.

Ted Simons: So basically, we're not going to wait until Tuesday morning to see who goes to their office and who doesn't, who's escorted in? What is it?

Howard Fischer: What happens is there's a security guard there are two entrances to the building, one is pretty much locked and you go in the back through security. There's no metal detector, there's no special badges or something like that, but the folks who are employees walk in. If she puts security there and says these people are not allowed in, you know we'll all be there with our cameras.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Isn't this stunning? I mean, really there probably is an important legal question that needs to get settled here, but the money it's going to take to do that while we have closed door talks going on over adequate funding for the schools, I mean hello! There's a bunch of schoolchildren.

Howard Fischer: They're going to keep getting paid. Do you know who does the payroll? The department of administration. Do you know who the department of administration reports to? Governor Ducey.

Bob Christie: Which is how the governor went around Douglas. He just called the ADOA said no they're still on the payroll.

Ted Simons: All right, well, I'll tell you what, as we try to get who cares about schools, we got the school's chief and the governor going at it and you're trying to do your a, b, c's. The governor made a move this week as well and that raised a couple of eyebrows.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Ducey did his share of firing this week and called the news conference to announce the appointment of his new director of the department of child safety, which meant that Charles Flanagan who's been basically in charge since December of '13 is out. This is a brand-new agency, it didn't become an official state agency until June. They've got a big, big ship to turn around, a lot of problems over there and the governor just said well I'm going in a new direction and what is that direction? Child safety.

Ted Simons: I thought Flanagan was the celebrated savior of all things children. What's going on here?

Howard Fischer: Well, if you want to interpret upwards, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt, you can say Flanagan was brought in as the trouble shooter. Flanagan has been there as the head of child welfare, I'm sorry McKay had been there to take a look at and he discovered the 6,600 cases of non-investigated cases. That meant that we had to take the control away from the head of the department of economic security. Who do you give it to? Flanagan came in as the trouble shooter. He was the fixer, based on that. Now, the question becomes going forward, do you want a fixer in there or do you want someone else? Putting McKay is interesting because he's a cop. Got no management experience at all. In fact, the governor had to appoint a deputy director who came out of private industry so it's an interesting question of what does he expect him to do? What are they expecting of the agencies? Is this a tilt towards taking more kids from the homes or reconciliation?

Bob Christie: That was the question that immediately came to mind. The vast majority of DHS cases are not criminal abuse cases. They're neglect cases and there's been a law written and a lot of studies done as Arizona cut its support for low-income families and marginal families and people with families with some drug abuse problems, alcohol abuse problems, that the numbers of neglect cases sky-rocketed. That's where the majority of our problem came from and yes, there's high-profile criminal cases where children are criminally abused and that's what McKay was in to fix.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Also, central to this is Maricopa attorney bill Montgomery, he's actually been more forthcoming about perhaps the reasons for this than the governor and his staff have been thus far and Montgomery who is a big fan of Greg McKay and helped to get Greg McKay installed as the head of the investigations community, Montgomery said look, we had an e-mail change between him and Flanagan and Montgomery had a lot of questions about this back log at the department and it's not really shrinking much. What's happening? How is that happening? This is an agency that first Charles Flanagan comes in, they've got to deal with the 6,600 cases that have been set aside. He had to go through all those. Meantime, there's already a back log, and then it grows.

Ted Simons: Is Montgomery expecting when you focus on these 6,600 cases that everything else is going to go swimmingly?

Howard Fischer: The other part of it is they have had money. We've seen how much they've added to the budget, a couple hundred million over the years but it takes a while to train people and get them up to speed and we still have a lower staff to case load ratio, maybe a higher one depending on how you look at it than is recommended nationally. You've got case workers carrying more cases than they should be. You wonder how can they're not resolving the cases? Ask me, I can tell you.

Bob Christie: Flanagan is a manager, top-notch state bureaucrat manager. And he was very good at going in and taking an agency that had been floundering, getting those 6,600 cases fixed over a short period of time and then standing up a new agency, he's a bureaucrat and he and Greg McKay clashed quite often.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, Greg McKay comes in, apparently a memo is sent out, it looks like a suggestion that the dcs was close to breaking the law, criminal liability due to leadership won't tolerate artificial measures or bad faith? What is that all about?

Mary Jo Pitzl: This was new director McKay's introductory letter to the staff and it was rather remarkable. Therefore, it was worth writing about because he seemed to be hinting strongly that there had been some kind of illegal activity. He's not available for comment, the governor's office isn't commenting on this which leads you to think maybe this gives us more context to Flanagan's removal and McKay's ascension but without details, we don't know.

Howard Fischer: That becomes the problem given that the individual case files are pretty much all from it. We're trying to find out what illegal activities? The non-investigated cases were illegal activities, but that was someone else's watch. The question does become, everyone says we're not saying there was any criminal activity going on but there but this is just saying going forward, don't do it. I have seen consent judgments like that we didn't do it and we won't do it again.

Ted Simons: Please stop being a homicidal maniac. Don't ever do that again.

Howard Fischer: We'll clean up the bodies later.

Ted Simons: And bill Montgomery the quote was we've seen the system regress.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Yeah, and I think he's looking at the amount of back log cases and again being a prosecutor, he's getting a look at some of the cases that McKay's former unit might be sending over for prosecution.

Ted Simons:Last question on this. Whether it's cps, dcs, you put the letters in there, when it's dealing with child safety, is this an any win situation?

Bob Christie: There's no win to this situation. If you take the kids out too soon, you get yelled out by parents for taking them out too soon. If you leave them in a day too long, they are injured or killed, you get criticized for that. The staff is overwhelmed, the turnover is high, the pay is low, there is no glory in being the manager of the department.

Ted Simons: That's a really interesting point. The idea that maybe was Flanagan's crowd, were they taking too many kids away from homes?

Howard Fischer: A lot of this is what happens when they get into foster care, where are you providing the support services?

Ted Simons: That's kind of out there. Do you think that might have been a factor?

Mary Jo Pitzl: I mean, you read some of the examples that were cited in the federal lawsuit that was filed last week and these suits have been going on for a while. They were going on when Clarence carter still had cps under his watch.

Bob Christie: This is a lack of if you talk to the legislature's leaders, Andy biggs says they've got more money than what they know to do with over there but the numbers, as the budget goes down, the number of people in foster care goes up and so it's

Howard Fischer: And this gets down to the question of priorities that we've talked about. We're adding another $100 million to the department of corrections because we certainly don't want to be seen as soft on crime, cutting universities by $75 million. Lord know that we are going to be doing with dcs

Ted Simons: Only a couple of minutes left. Another change of agency. Will humble is out. What's that all about?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Will humble who's been head of the department of health announced his resignation today. He said he decided time is right, time to move on. And just last month, the governor named humble as one of the first people that he's retaining. Humble said look, when you sign up with the new governor, I take it as a four-year commitment, rolling that around.

Howard Fischer: Howard Fischer: And look there are going to be budget issues. You've got a couple of things going on, the behavioral unit and putting it with the Arizona healthcare cost containment system which may make some sense, although what humble has been doing over the years is getting that fixed and he's finally got it at the point where it's running well and being told now that you've fixed it we're going to take it away. You've got measles shots, you've got medical marijuana regulation.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And I should note that that announcement to move the mental health services out of the department of health services, that only came after humble had accepted to stay on with Ducey. The budget was released about, you know, I don't know a week later.

Bob Christie: That said, you always wonder what really is behind this. Did he not get along well with the governor's people? Was there some pressure being put on him? Who knows?

Howard Fischer: I don't know that's the case. Humble he's very low key. He's tried to get along with everybody and I can't see him as going head to head with the governor.

Ted Simons: All right. Great conversation. Thank you all very much. Certainly appreciate it.

That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons, thank you for joining us. You have a great weekend.

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Mary Jo Pitzl:Journalist, Arizona Republic; Howard Fischer:Journalist, Capitol Media Services; Bob Christie:Journalist, Associated Press;

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