Of all the powers held by County School Superintendents, many observers believe the most important is the power to fill school board vacancies. In many districts the new appointments can shift the direction of a failing school district or break up a monopoly that liberal political machines are eager to establish on a school district’s resources. But how do various County Superintendents wield this power?
The Arizona Daily Independent asked several GOP County Superintendents for information on their appointments and then compared the information to voter rolls to determine the political affiliations of their appointments. Three offices responded with details of their appointments – Steve Watson in Maricopa, Michael File in Mohave, and Jill Broussard in Pinal County.
Superintendent File in deep red Mohave County used his power of appointment to appoint the highest rate of Republicans (>75%) to school boards – at least 18 of his 24 appointments were registered Republicans, 1 was a Democrat, 2 were Independents, and 3 could not be identified for certain. Superintendent Broussard in more purple Pinal County was close behind – 12 of her 24 appointments since 2016 were registered Republicans. The outlier in the group was Steve Watson, the Superintendent from red Maricopa County. Nearly half of Watson’s 32 appointments to school board vacancies were registered Democrats. In fact, less than 40% of his appointments were Republicans at all. In a majority Republican county where Democrats are actually the third largest group behind Independents and those with No Party Preference, this large number of Democratic appointments caused alarm with political and education observers we spoke with.
“A smattering of Republicans to provide the appearance of bipartisanship and a ton of Democrats to keep school boards under left-wing control is exactly what we would see if we had a Democrat Super.” said one Republican consultant.
Many school districts saw multiple appointments, like Aguila Elementary District which had three appointments, all of them registered Democrats except for one Independent, or Murphy Elementary District, which had four appointments, all of them Democrats except for one Independent. The appointments were an opportunity for Watson to create Republican majorities. Instead, he cemented Democratic control. The most recent data showed 20-24% of Aguila students were proficient in math and 35-39% in reading, both below the state average. Murphy performed even worse – with only 15% of students proficient in math and 18% in reading.
“The key to turning many of these badly performing districts around is to first turn around the school boards,” said one former teacher, adding “so it’s heartbreaking to hear that Republicans had the chance to save them and failed to do it.”
Watson’s reliance on Democrat school board members is even more striking given that he won office by attacking the former Republican Superintendent Don Covey for being too moderate, and while on the campaign trail in 2016, Watson routinely pledged to appoint more conservatives to school boards.