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Tense meeting as Douglas faces Board of Education employees she tried to fire

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Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas faced the State Board of Education and two employees she attempted to fire during a brief but tense meeting Friday.

The panel, of which Douglas is a member, voted to require her to allow Christine Thompson, the board’s executive director, and Sabrina Vazquez, the assistant executive director, back into their offices.

Douglas cast the only dissenting vote.

“I cannot assure by 8:30 a.m. after a holiday weekend that my staff here will be able to make all these changes possible, but certainly I have to protect the Department of Education, and that’s what I intend to do,” she said.

The meeting continued a political whirlwind that began Wednesday, when Douglas fired the pair. While she didn’t provide a reason, Douglas disagrees with the board’s support for the Common Core State Standards and the new AzMERIT achievement test for Arizona students.

The next morning, Gov. Doug Ducey said Douglas lacked authority to fire board employees, prompting a sharply worded news release from Douglas titled “Arizona Superintendent of Public Schools Diane Douglas Did Not See Doug Ducey’s Name on the Ballot for State Superintendent.”

“It is no surprise that his office supports retaining two liberal staff who have publicly stated they will block all efforts to repeal or change Common Core and backs the newly elected President of the Board of Education who is a charter school operator and stands to profit from the Governor’s policy of pushing through AzMERIT to lower school scores so that more students can be removed to charter schools,” the release said.

But Douglas wasn’t as harsh during a Friday news conference, saying, “I so look forward to working with Ducey, and I’m confident that by working with the governor and the Legislature we can fix this with simple legislation and not litigation.”

At the board meeting, Douglas entered the room and removed all pre-placed media microphones from her desk, saying that she wished to be treated like any other member of the board. At one point during the meeting, she read her statement from the news conference.

Douglas is the only elected official on the 11-member board, which sets policies for public education. The other members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

The board also moved to reschedule a Feb. 23 meeting. Greg Miller, president of the board, said the schedule change allows time for the board to get over recent events.

“The reason this is on the agenda is because of the current situation and the damage that it’s caused in the ability of the board to do its job as defined in state Constitution and by all state laws,” he said.

Douglas voted against moving the meeting, saying that she didn’t consider it necessary.

“Upon the staff changes that were made earlier this week we immediately assigned someone to facilitate those duties, so there’s really no reason why this meeting has to be canceled,” she said.

Miller shot back: “We would be happy to do this, if we hadn’t gone through the last week.”

Sally Stewart, director of communications for the Arizona Department of Education, said she feels that Douglas is handling this tense situation like a professional.

“She is an absolute 100 percent professional. She is handling it as any head of an agency would,” she said.

When asked what process of moving forward might look like, Stewart said, “I think the superintendent is really looking forward to putting this behind her and moving forward and working together with both the board and the governor.”

Douglas had a few supporters in the crowd, including Beth Hallgren, chief of staff for her primary election.

“Diane is honest and truthful and forthright. There have certainly been people in her office that didn’t want to make waves and didn’t want to rock the boat. Diane Douglas was elected by the majority of the people to do what it took and if that takes rocking the boat we’ll rock right along with her and support her every step of the way,” she said.