Robert Downey was born Belfast, Northern Ireland, and spent decades working in information technology. Photo by Jay Taylor

Robert Downey’s path to a seat on the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board
started a continent away.

His journey, marked by family tragedy, may be different from his fellow board members, but he shares their goal — to help develop better students.

For Downey, it’s about recognizing the educators in Belfast, Northern Ireland,
who rescued him in his early years and gave him a shot at a successful life.

The oldest of six boys, Downey’s father died when he was a young boy — and his 26-year-old mother was pregnant with his youngest brother.

“My teachers did a lot for me,” said Downey, who recently retired after a 40-year career in information technology, the past two decades with Honeywell in the Valley. “We grew up poor, and I was only 10 when my dad died.” He said his teachers pointed him toward a variety of pursuits, including ROTC, athletics, running and the Boy Scouts, which provided the education, will, knowledge and confidence “to go for it” and keep him out of trouble.

“Where I’m from, 98% of students left school by the 10th grade,” he said. “They had to go to work and help support their families. Because of the help of those people, I was able to do more than that.”

The persistence learned from school mentors paid off as he graduated college with an honors degree in computer science from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. He went to work for the French company Bombardier Aerospace, the largest employer in Northern Ireland, where he worked for 20 years before being recruited to the United States in 1995. He was brought over by an aerospace company, Philadelphia-based CDI, in support of a project for Allied Signal in the Valley. Allied Signal later acquired Honeywell but kept the name.

It had long been a dream for Downey. “I always wanted to come here since the moon landing,” he said. “I wanted to come to America to be an American. And to live the
American dream.”

On his arrival to the States, Downey immediately appreciated his newfound liberty.

In Belfast, three decades of “the Troubles,” the conflict over whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland in a united Ireland, meant he couldn’t simply go out and do things.

“When we left, you couldn’t even go for a hike in the local park because of the Troubles,” he said. “The Belfast city center shut down at 6 p.m. There were barriers around the city
center. There was nothing — no restaurants, nowhere to go, nothing to do.”

In this country, he and his wife, Barbara, and the family could go to the theater and dine
in restaurants.

“The freedom to get in your car and drive wherever you want to, is an amazing thing that we take for granted here, and we forget how special that freedom is,” he said. “The opportunities here were immense for my kids and they were very good for Barbara and me.”

A long career in information technology and growing up in a different culture has provided skills, though perhaps untraditional, that Downey feels will translate well to his Governing Board role.

“I think I can draw a little bit from of all aspects of my career,” he said. “My time in the corporate world will definitely help me understand the finances. I attended two of the board meetings (before being sworn in Feb. 16) and I understand what they cover. I am impressed by the people and the subject matter they are handling on a daily basis.

“I think I’m good at listening and knowing what’s going on,” he added. “It’s about understanding how you can help the families.”

Downey said he’s already interested in the district’s Maricopa Virtual Academy and the
foreign teachers program. He will draw upon his own personal experience to guide him on the school board.

His wife was a pastor of a church congregation of 500-600 members. Downey ran events for her.

“I ran the youth program, the Rainbows group, which is a support group for kids who’d lost a parent,” he said. “As it grew, it came to include kids who had lost a parent through
divorce as well as death, which gave me a lot of chances to work with young people and try to make a difference in their lives.”


Downey was widowed in 2013. He recently remarried after meeting his wife Jane in a singles group at Cornerstone Church in Mesa. After retiring in November from Honeywell, Downey said the couple went to see their financial planner and told him they wanted to support some charitable organizations, both financially and with their time.

As they were going through that process, a colleague reached out to him who thought he would make a good addition to the MUSD board.

“Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I thought it might be a way for me to help,” he said. “I have been blessed with good teachers, good education and extracurricular activities in my life. Those things motivated me to go on to university and go on to have a really good life and career. If I can do anything to help these kids get some of those same kinds of things, I’ll do anything I can to make that happen.”

That suggestion came from Lewis Sanders, whom Downey knew from their work together in the Pinal County Republican Committee. Shortly after they met, Sanders told Downey he would be a good candidate for the open seat.

“He came here in 1995 from Ireland, he’s a great family man, takes extremely good care of his kids, he interacts with them all the time,” Sanders said. “He interacts with people, he is a very caring, compassionate person. Knowing him like I did I thought he would be a good fit because he loves kids.”

Downey was intrigued and applied. Pinal County Superintendent of Schools Jill Broussard interviewed five candidates for the seat vacated in September when board member Patti Coutre resigned to take a position as an administrative assistant in the district’s maintenance department.

Downey was appointed from a field of candidates that included Edward Farrell, Darris Pedro, Yolanda Miranda and Tracey Armstead-Payton, who ran for a seat in the November election and came up just 17 votes short.

Sanders believes Downey will thrive in his new role.

“He’s got plenty of common sense, foresight and the ability to get along with people,” said Sanders. “He can look at and analyze the curriculum and he has all those things that will make him great with both the kids and the parents. He’ll be looking out for
the students.”


Broussard said Downey stood out in a field of strong candidates.

“Maricopa has had a history of providing wonderful applicants for open board seats, and this was no different,” she said. “All five candidates had engaging personalities, unique life experiences and sincere care for their community. Mr. Downey represents another unique set of experiences, skills and talents. I believe he will be a good addition to help strengthen the board in doing what is best for our students.”

Looking at the board from the outside (at least so far), Downey saw several issues he
identified as priorities for the district.

“Well, COVID is obviously number one,” he said. “It’s an intersection of health and
education, and the social aspect of it in kids’ lives is very important.”

He said getting students caught up will be critical, and planning of the new high school,
the district’s ability to handle the city’s population growth and finances are key.

Downey said the Governing Board and Broussard share a big vision and want to be
recognized as the best district in the state and across the country.

“I want us to be compared with the districts in Chandler,” he said. “They want to
be the best — I like that.”

And while Downey may have ideas about what his new endeavor will entail, he is also
honest about not knowing all to expect as a Governing Board member.

“I’m an open and honest person so I have to say I don’t know exactly what I’m getting
myself into,” he said. “But I do know how to get thrown in the deep end and survive.”

Age: 62
Hometown: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Maricopan since: 2017
Occupation: Retired
Elected position: Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board; term runs through 2022
Previous: Information technology in the aerospace industry for Bombardier, Allied Signal and Honeywell
In his words: “I always wanted to come here since the moon landing. I wanted to come to America to be an American. And to live the American dream.”