Political firestorm engulfed EVIT chief, costs job

During her 19 years as superintendent of the East Valley Institute of Technology, Sally Downey made many powerful political allies, including former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, but in the end they couldn’t save her job.

A bitter election full of charges, countercharges, conspiracy theories and threats last fall soured an already tense relationship between the East Valley Institute of Technology and Mesa Public Schools.

The outcome was catastrophic for longtime EVIT Superintendent Sally Downey, who on Monday was officially booted by the board.

The board voted 8-1 to approve a separation agreement that gives her an extra year of pay at $157,177 plus a $33,333 annuity.

Scores of students from Ahwatukee’s two Tempe Union high schools are among EVIT’s approximate 3,900 students.

The acrimonious ballot battle over the often overlooked and little known EVIT Governing Board included accusations that a Mesa schools administrator was leading a “coup” – a charge denied by the administrator and the district.

On the other side, Mesa officials worried that EVIT personnel were encouraging voters to reject a critical bond issue, which won narrow approval, and a budget override, which was narrowly defeated.

Downey was placed on administrative suspension after the new board was seated in January.

Downey’s three-year extension on her contract was signed last year and runs through 2021 with a base salary of $188,613 annually.

Her perks include a $30,000 per year annuity contribution, a $750 monthly car allowance and a $100,000 life insurance policy.

Although EVIT normally has a low profile, it is an important institution with a wide regional presence in the East Valley, with an enrollment of 3,932 and campuses in west and east Mesa, Apache Junction and Fountain Hills.

High school students from eight East Valley school districts split their day between regular classes at their school and vocational classes at EVIT.

An investigation by attorney Susan Segal revealed a list of suspected violations of procurement and contract laws, and an Open Meetings Law violation, that are under investigation by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for possible civil sanctions.

With all signs pointing toward the board working out a separation agreement with Downey, her allies – including former MPS governing board president Ben Smith – are firing back.

Smith, the former MPS governing board president who lost his re-election bid in November, is not satisfied with the investigation by Mesa schools legal counsel Tom Pickrell.

Pickrell cleared career technical education director Marlo Loria of wrongdoing and concluded she was exercising her constitutional rights as a citizen to participate in an election.

Smith said he had a friend secretly record Loria at staff meetings.

He said he then arranged for a politically connected intermediary to deliver the recordings and other records to the state Attorney General’s Office for investigation into whether MPS resources were used to orchestrate the ouster of EVIT candidates loyal to Downey.

The documents show at least two receipts for printing of fliers in support of Larry Johnson, who eventually was elected to the board, and an unspecified print order for Ronda Shumway Doolen, who also was elected.

It also included a detailed diagram listing all the EVIT candidates, the districts they represent and their status for the upcoming ballot.

On the tapes, Loria mainly defends herself against charges that she violated state law through her support of EVIT board candidates. Loria also explains a fundamental difference of philosophy between EVIT and MPS about career education.

She said Downey wants “every kid to go to EVIT,” while MPS wants students to have an opportunity to explore career possibilities without committing to a potential career path.

“Our kids should have exploration opportunities. They have great programs at EVIT, but so do we,” Loria said. With about 20,000 high school students in Mesa, “there’s plenty of kids to go around.”

“We are not shutting down EVIT. We support EVIT. You can go to EVIT and we will make it work,” Loria says.

But Loria also makes a comment about Smith, who was the MPS governing board president at that time.

“Ben Smith supports EVIT. He just does. He has been part of questioning the authenticity of our program, which is fine,” Loria said on the recording. “I’m working with him so he can see the other side.”

Smith said he believes Loria’s comments could have influenced his defeat in the MPS election.

“I had other board members telling me, ‘Ben, you need to be on our side,” he said. “Mesa wants to offer more CTE (career technical education) programs on their campuses so that kids don’t have to go EVIT.”

He said MPS officials wanted Downey gone to protect their funding of CTE programs as EVIT satellite programs.

At a point on both tapes, Loria tells her staff that she would not endorse any candidates at a staff meeting, but would share her opinions over a beer or a cider after school hours.

“I probably overstepped a few bounds,” Loria adds. “My stance is always do what is best for the kids … this whole ideology that Marlo Loria is against EVIT is false.”

Pickrell’s analysis points to friction between the two public school governing boards that started grinding in February 2018 – when Downey demanded that MPS fire Loria for her role in circulating petitions and serving as campaign manager for David Lane, an MPS auto repair instructor who had won election to the EVIT board.

After determining Loria exercised her First Amendment rights on off-hours, MPS informed Downey in May that “her complaint was unfounded” and refused to remove Loria from her job.

But the dispute was far from over.

The sparks seemed to smolder into a fire in August, when EVIT governing board member Robert Covington and principal Craig Pearson appeared before the MPS board, where Covington accused MPS of orchestrating the “coup.”

“Mr. Covington warned that if MPS does not ‘educate its employees about conflict of interest and hold them accountable for their misconduct,’ MPS will damage its reputation and may lose its override and bond elections,” Pickrell’s report said.

He also said MPS might lose its state funding of satellite career education programs, which had been approved in the past.

But again, Pickrell said he found no violations of law by Loria and a second administrator, Barbara “Tot” Wallace.

“They assured us that they circulated petitions only when off duty,” Pickrell wrote. “There does not appear to be good cause to take disciplinary action against Ms. Loria, Ms. Wallace or Mr. Lane.”

Pickrell noted that Downey, her administrative assistant and three EVIT employees had circulated petitions for Shon Rasmussen, a longtime EVIT supporter who eventually was defeated in the November election by Johnson.

“Evidentially, they welcome their employees’ support for incumbents and other favored candidates, but they demand that MPS suppress its employees’ support for EVIT governing board employees that they oppose,” Pickrell wrote.

Pickrell cites ARS 15-511, which gives the Attorney General authority to sue school districts for violating the prohibition against actions intended to influence an election, using school resources or time. The penalty imposed is $5,000 per violation.

In part, the law says, “A person acting on behalf of a school district or a person who aids another person acting on behalf of a school district shall not spend or use school district or charter school resources, including the use or expenditure of monies, accounts, credit, facilities, vehicles, postage, telecommunications, computer hardware and software, web pages, personnel, equipment, materials, buildings or any other thing of value of the school district or charter school, for the purpose of influencing the outcomes of elections.”

Helen Hollands, an MPS spokeswoman, said all of the questions raised by Smith have been thoroughly investigated and none violate the law, including the tapes.

She said the election diagram was “factual,” making it exempt from being a violation, and that no one controls emails that are sent to their inbox by another party.

Hollands confirmed that Loria has been promoted to executive director of innovative partnerships, and will likely receive a pay increase, but she said she does not know Loria’s new salary.

The EVIT election’s dynamics were especially dicey and eventually left Downey and her supporters at a disadvantage.

With five positions open on the nine-member board, two incumbents were eliminated from the ballot for having too few signatures of registered voters to qualify, Norman Colbert and Matt Wright, who missed out by only seven.

Another incumbent, Erwin “Erv” Heimbuck and Downey supporter Rasmussen, lost their elections. Heimbuck was defeated by Shumway Doolen.

Wright’s disqualification left a clear path for election of Shelli Richardson Boggs, who had clashed with Downey when Boggs worked for EVIT. Colbert’s disqualification cleared space for Bryghtyn Franker, a Westwood High School teacher, to win election to the EVIT board as a write-in candidate.

Downey’s downfall came swiftly. The new board quickly placed Downey on administrative leave and hired attorney Susan Segal to investigate her. Segal’s list of possible violations of state procurement and contract laws are the subject of a civil investigation by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, while the state Department of Education is investigating the certification of EVIT teachers.

Katie Conner, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the additional allegations generated by Smith will be added to the ongoing civil investigation of Downey’s management.

“I think it’s all minor stuff,” Smith said about Segal’s accusations about Downey, saying she deserved only a reprimand.

While the Attorney General’s investigation continues, Smith said he also is working on another front, with Rasmussen and Rhonda Levenda, on a drive to recall Lane, the EVIT board’s new president. He said the three have established the Recall David Lane political action committee.

Levenda also was defeated in the MPS election, her first attempt to run for public office.

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