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Diane Douglas defends suit against Arizona education board

PHOENIX — Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas defended a lawsuit Thursday, which she filed against the Board of Education over who controls the board’s staff after the initial court hearing in the case.

Douglas pledged in February not to “spend precious tax dollars” suing over who is responsible for the board’s staff. That statement came after she tried to fire the board’s executive director and her deputy but was blocked by Gov. Doug Ducey.

She said Thursday an effort to pass a clarifying law had failed, and it’s now an issue for the legal system.

“We tried to resolve this amicably, I tried to take it to the Legislature,” Douglas said. “The Legislature loudly and clearly said, `No, thank you.’ They support the authority and elected capacity of the superintendent, so now the courts will decide.”

The board voted last month to move its staff from Douglas’ Department of Education building. Douglas sued after they moved and wants the judge to clarify her authority over board employees.

Douglas’s lawyer, Stephen Tully, told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Patricia Starr that the board’s actions were illegal.

“The law is clear — these employees have moved out of their offices at the Department of Education – they’re Department of Education employees,” Tully said. “It’s an illegal act.”

But board attorney Colin Campbell said the board voted to move its staff. Douglas, he said, was asking the court to intervene in a political dispute and overturn that board vote.

The board moved its staff because of ongoing issues that were ostensibly worked out in February, Campbell said.

“We’ve done everything to try to make this relationship work,” Campbell said. “In fact we believe the facts will show the superintendent created a hostile work environment, which required the Board of Education to make a policy decision in respect to where to put these particular employees.”

Douglas wants the judge to issue an injunction requiring the board staff to move back, or giving Douglas the authority to fire them. Tully said the state and the education department needed a quick decision, and opposed a request by Campbell to set the case for trial in December.

He asked for a court hearing on the merits of the case within weeks. “And we can get a decision from this court and there will be closure and the political circus can be put to rest,” Tully told the judge.

Board President Greg Miller said the ongoing battle between Douglas and the board was hampering the board’s work.

“I think this whole issue is costing every child in the state, and I don’t mean in money,” Miller said. “We’re having to focus on a legal issue of control, which to me is an issue of politics, rather than administering the best policies and implementation of those policies into the classroom as much as we possibly can.”

Starr set a hearing for June 26 to consider initial legal arguments in the lawsuit.