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Conflict Looms After Top Officials for Arizona School Board Fired by State Chief

UPDATED

Arizona Superintendent Diane Douglas fired the state board of education's top two officers on Feb. 12, and the state board president thinks the move was not only petty, but legally questionable.

Douglas announced that Christine Thompson and Sabrina Vasquez, the board's executive director and deputy director, respectively, were let go in what Douglas described as a personnel move, according to the Associated Press. But Arizona Board of Education President Greg Miller said that since Thompson and Vasquez reported to the board, and not to Douglas, the superintendent doesn't appear to have the power to fire them. 

"The chief of staff and the superintendent are trying to make decisions on staff members that serve the state Board of Education," Miller said. "I'm not sure what the legal capacity they can operate in could be." (Douglas declined further comment to the AP.)

UPDATE: On Feb. 12, Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, announced that he was reversing the two firings, citing legal precedent. In response, Douglas said Feb. 13 that while she was sticking to her position that she had the right to fire Thompson and Vasquez, she also "wants lawmakers to clear up ambiguity on the issue" and does want to waste tax dollars in a dispute with Ducye. 

After a campaign based primarily on fierce opposition to the Common Core State Standards, Douglas, a Republican, beat out Democrat David Garcia in last November's election, even though the state's Republican establishment in many instances backed Garcia. The state board has continued to support the common core standards despite the desire from some state legislators to repeal them.

Last year, during a debate in the state legislature about just such a repeal bill, Thompson said that Arizona's students were showing academic improvement since the state adopted the standards, according to the Arizona Daily Star. And when she took over as the board's executive director in 2013, Thompson was described as a common-core advocate, the Arizona Daily Independent reported. 

So what does the law say? The 11-member state board is created in the Arizona Constitution and the members are appointed by the governor, but the statute governing the board says it can "employ staff on the recommendation of the superintendent of public instruction." That phrase could be open to conflicting legal definitions. 

The state education department's website also says (hat-tip Arizona Republic) that the superintendent may "direct the work of all employees of the board who shall be employees of the department of education" and "direct the performance of executive, administrative or ministerial functions by the department of education or divisions or employees thereof." Hiring and firing power, however, isn't explicitly delegated to Douglas in that language.

Kris Amundson, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said that a key issue regarding Douglas' move to fire Thompson and Vasquez is the source of the money for those positions' salaries. 

"Even if it's legal, is it a good idea?" Amundson asked of Douglas' actions.

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