Education officials return after chief tried to fire them

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX (AP) -- Two state Board of Education officials returned to work Tuesday after Arizona schools chief Diane Douglas tried to fire them - a development that defused a situation pitting Douglas against the board and Gov. Doug Ducey.

The board voted Friday to order Douglas to restore office, email and other access to board Executive Director Christine Thompson and Deputy Director Sabrina Vazquez.

That order came a day after Ducey countered the firing of the top board executives.

Thompson, Vazquez and a lawyer representing the board arrived at the Education Department building on Tuesday. "It feels good to get back to the office," Vazquez said.

Attorney Mary O'Grady later said Thompson and Vazquez have full access. "This situation has been difficult for both Christine and Sabrina, and they are just pleased to be back in the office and hopefully get back to business as usual," O'Grady said.

Douglas had said she might have trouble meeting the board's deadline because of Monday's state holiday. But O'Grady said she received a letter from Douglas' lawyer late Monday saying the executives would be allowed to return to work.

The board and Ducey contend Douglas didn't have the authority to fire the two officials, which Douglas disputes.

Douglas said in a statement she would work through "legislative and judicial channels" to confirm who oversees the board's employees.

She said she saw "no reason to escalate the current situation by excluding people from access to the Department of Education building even though the action of the Board of Education was clearly outside of its authority."

Douglas' attorney, Steve Tully, said allowing the board executives access to their offices dealt with the immediate problem. He said legislation or a lawsuit to clear up who oversees board employees are both options, but Douglas will make any decision on how to proceed.

The board sets state school policy and operates independently of the elected superintendent of public instruction, who runs the education department. Douglas is a board member because of her post, but the other members are appointed by the governor.

Tuesday's development may end a contentious battle that erupted after Ducey countered the firings, but the long-term damage between the state's top education official and the governor remains to be seen.

Douglas fired off a fiery statement after Ducey acted that accused him of backing charters over traditional public schools, among other statements attacking the governor.

Both are Republicans, but Douglas campaigned on eliminating the state's new Common Core standards and is opposed to a new assessment test the board adopted late last year.

Ducey also has opposed Common Core. But he has not spoken about how he might try to reshape it since taking office early last month.

Douglas did not appear outside the Education Department building Tuesday. Her spokeswoman, Sally Stewart, didn't immediately returns calls and emails seeking comment.

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