- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Lawyers for the state Board of Education asked a Maricopa County judge on Friday to throw out a lawsuit filed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas seeking to give Douglas the power to fire board staff members.

But the lawyer representing Douglas told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Patricia Starr that she should reject that request and instead issue an order saying Douglas has the power to oversee board employees.

The dispute between Douglas and the board has been brewing since February, when Douglas fired the board’s executive director and her deputy, moves that were blocked by Gov. Doug Ducey. The board then voted in April to move its staff to offices outside Douglas’ Department of Education building, prompting the state schools chief to sue in an effort to settle the issue. Douglas’ lawsuit also seeks to make board staff members return to her offices.

Board attorney Colin Campbell told the judge that state law clearly allows the board to direct its staff. He called the lawsuit “a dispute about power and control” that Douglas started when she fired the board’s top staffers. Starr should reject an attempt to intercede in a political dispute over board policy decisions that Douglas doesn’t like, he said.

“The superintendent who in February kicked the employees out of the office and wouldn’t let them back in, now wants to keep them in the office and bar the door so they can’t leave,” Campbell said. “What the superintendent wants to do is have the court micromanage the decisions of the board and say that certain decisions the superintendent disagrees with (are) outside the board’s authority and only within her authority to do.”

Douglas’ lawyer, Stephen Tully, told Starr the superintendent clearly has the power to oversee board employees.

“The state law is clear, the superintendent has both the duty and the power and the authority to direct all the employees of the state board, and is the executive officer and has all executive powers,” Tully told the judge. “And the board has attempted to grant those powers to the executive director.”

The superintendent recommends who the board hires as its executive staff, but they are actually hired by the board. The dispute is over who has day-to-day control and can fire them.

Board President Greg Miller said the board, which is charged with setting state education policy that Douglas then must implement, needs to be able to rely on its employees. “If in fact the board doesn’t have control of its own employees, then how are we ever going to ensure that anything that the board decides is policy is going to get in effect done?” he said after the hearing.

Douglas spoke only briefly after the hearing.

“I read the law, and the law is clearly on our side,” she said. “The law is very clear about the recommendation of the superintendent and who the employees report to thereafter.”

Starr said she’ll issue a ruling later. If she doesn’t dismiss the case, she will set further hearings, the judge said.

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