Lifetime Career Dedicated to Serving the Public
Interview by Ray Newton
‘I have a passion for people’
Editor’s Note: Dr. Billie Orr resigned from the Prescott City Council Jan. 19, explaining that she and her husband are moving to a lower-altitude location in Scottsdale for health reasons. In the city’s announcement of her decision Mayor Greg Mengarelli said, “Billie will be sorely missed. Her dedication and service to the City of Prescott have been awe-inspiring.”
Virtually everyone who knows Billie Orr will testify — vigorously — that she keeps the public welfare, especially education — at the top of her “I will make it happen” list.
Orr, who joined the Prescott City Council in January of 2015 and most recently served as mayor pro tem, has served in the public sector in one way or another beginning in the 1970s — some five decades.
The Mississippi native came with her family to the Valley of the Sun in the 1960s. She attended Arizona State University, where she earned three degrees: a B.A. in education in 1970; an M.A. in reading education in 1972 and a doctorate in educational leadership in 1994. She taught at Madison School District while she earned her first degree. She taught for more than 25 years.
For all that time, she was an articulate and vocal advocate at local, state and national levels for increased standards for students and for teacher preparation and certification. She also emphasized equality for all students—from the gifted to special needs, disadvantaged and minorities.
She became Arizona’s deputy superintendent of public education and served from 1997 to 2001.
Other public service roles she’s held in her career and community work include:
- President, Education Leader’s Council, Washington D.C. — 2001-2003
- Chairman, Gallatin County Republican Party, Bozeman, MT- 2008-2010.
- Director of Development, Montana Bible College, Bozeman — 2003-2011
- President, Republican Women of Prescott — 2014
- Board of Directors, Arizona Town Hall — 2016-current
Orr says her personal “superpower” is to bring people together for a common purpose. “I have a passion for people and think we all need to work together to for the benefit of the greater society we enjoy.”
PRESCOTT LIVING: We’re speaking with Billie Orr. Billie is the mayor pro-tem in Prescott. She serves on several commissions, committees, corporate groups. Dr. Orr, I’d like to ask: You grew up in Mississippi. How did you end up in Arizona?
DR. BILLIE ORR: Well, my mom was a human resources director for a manufacturing group so she set up the human resources departments in different states. New Mexico was one, and then she ended up in Arizona and was setting up a factory in Mesa. And at the time I was going to school at Delta State in Mississippi. I was a sophomore.
I came over here for the holidays and decided that I could live with my parents and it would be a lot cheaper for me to go to school. I lived at home and had to stay out six months of school so I could get my in-state residency. And then I went to Mesa Community College for a semester.
I finished at Arizona State, graduated in 1970, and immediately went to work on my master’s. But I taught at the same time, so I was a teacher in the Madison School District in Phoenix while I earned my master’s. And I was in Arizona from 1967 until 2003.
So we moved to Hawaii for about eight months, and then decided that we wanted to come back home to the West and decided to make a change from Arizona. We looked at Wyoming, Montana and landed in Bozeman, which was just beautiful. Absolutely loved it. We were there for eight years and it’s beautiful. I was very active with horses in Montana. Did a lot of trail-riding and taking care of horses. And I was very active at the Montana Bible College with my church. I worked for them and also attended.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Your husband, Bob, had a career in the military.
DR. BILLIE ORR: He was in the Air Force for seven years. And I loved being an Air Force wife. We had a lot of fun. It is about the family. We moved five times in three years, but I did love it. He flew C1-30s, he supported NATO during the Vietnam War. And my son Porter was also in the Navy, and he flew EA-18s, electronic attack, and he was in Iraq. So yeah, a military background. My dad was in the Army, my father-in-law was in the Army.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You’ve been in Arizona more than 50 years. What changes, social, political, cultural, have you seen? It is not the same Arizona.
DR. BILLIE ORR: No, it is not. But I will tell you I think it’s a better Arizona. I have seen Arizona grow and become really prosperous. And I think that’s really what we need for all our communities is prosperity. Something you will hear me say often is that I just believe in jobs, opportunities, education. All of those things work together to create a prosperous community, and I think that’s what we’ve seen in Arizona. There are some people who don’t like the growth, but I think the growth has benefited us all.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What about political changes in Arizona?
DR. BILLIE ORR: I didn’t get involved too much politically until I got involved with regard to education. And I’ve been a supporter of school choice for a long time. I’ve believed that Arizona has led the way on school choice. And I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done because I think it’s really made our system so much better. When I went to D.C. in 2000, I believe we had 400 charter schools in Arizona.
And when I was at the Arizona Department of Ed, one of my charges was charter schools. So politically I would say for me, my politics really centered mostly on education and opportunity for all students. For so long I was on the implementing on the policy side.
I became a little bit more politically active when I went to Montana and actually got quite politically active in some Republican politics there and tried to work quite hard to get some more school choice in Montana.
I’m very proud of the work I’ve done on public school choice. We have a vibrant charter school system here in our state, and I think it’s been good. I’m a huge supporter of public schools. When I was a principal, I was in Scottsdale Unified School District; Kiva School is a wonderful school. When I got there, I think we were at about 600, 625 students. When I left we were about 725 students after four years. We had 125 of our students come from outside of our district because it was such a fabulous school.
Parents are a huge part of a school, and so I had a lot of parental leadership in the school and a lot of teacher leadership. So I am a pretty site-based-local-control-we’re-all-in-this-together person.
There was a lot of that. And I really implemented that policy in my school. And as a result of that, one of my parents was elected the superintendent of schools for Arizona, Lisa Graham Keegan. She saw my work locally, as did the superintendent in Scottsdale Unified, so I was up for a position. And then Lisa asked me to come down to the state Department of Education. So I went there for four years and enjoyed it immensely. And it was really eye-opening to me.
Basically, we wrote all of the state academic standards for K-12 education, implemented those standards. We assessed those standards, wrote those standards with teachers all over the state. In fact, one of the things that the state Board of Education implemented was the AIMS test, Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards. And my son used to say, “Mom, please don’t tell my friends what you do.” But we actually implemented that test. And then it got changed quite a bit.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You have been in Prescott almost 10 years.
DR. BILLIE ORR: Yes.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What changes have you seen here in the last decade?
DR. BILLIE ORR: In the City of Prescott, I have seen us go from kind of doom-and-gloom politically. I believe financially we were in a mess, a world of hurt. And I listened to the radio and talk radio, and I listen to Steve Blair. I always blame Councilman Blair for my interest in getting on the City Council. And I heard him, and I went to a lot of the meetings about that unfunded public safety pension liability.
They were actually people saying we should declare bankruptcy. I felt that there was a better way to get us out of the situation that the city was in financially. They were cutting and cutting and cutting, and they had really cut down to bare bones. And of course there was also the economic downturn. But at the same time there was a better way than having to declare bankruptcy. I ran for City Council and fortunately was elected. There weren’t a lot of people running then. And so once I won City Council, I decided that we absolutely had to take care of the unfunded liability; we had to take care of that debt.
I touched base with some of the folks who had helped with the previous sales tax initiative that failed. We asked for three-quarters of a cent. At the city level, the Council decided to put an initiative on the ballot because we needed to pay that off. And I really took it upon myself to do what we could to pass that sales tax increase.
It wasn’t popular with Republicans. Wasn’t popular with a lot of people, but we had to do that for our community. So I went to my great friend, Councilman Steve Sischka and said, “Steve, will you help me with this?” And he said, “Yes, I’ll help. What can we do?” Because he also realized that it had to be done. And then we gathered some grassroots folks together and we formed Stand for Prescott and we worked day and night, 24/7, on getting that passed.
Passing Proposition 443 has literally turned our city around. Turned it from cut, cut, cut to “All right, let’s pay down this liability. We owe this to our first responders, our police, our fire.” So, when we passed it, it was for 10 years. Once we pay this down to $1.5 million, the tax goes away. We are on track to pay the unfounded liability off in 6 or 7 years, at least 2 years early.
PRESCOTT LIVING: That action was looked at by the rest of the state as being trendsetting.
DR. BILLIE ORR: Absolutely. And I’ve talked to quite a few people, because a lot of people said, “No, it’s the Legislature’s responsibility. They put this on the city. So let’s let the Legislature take care of this.” There was no way that was ever really going to happen.
I hate to say I’m very proud of a tax increase, but I am. That set the way for the City of Prescott to turn us around 180 degrees so that we could start talking about what we could do, not what we can’t do. And I think it’s made all the difference in the city.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You’re in your second term as mayor pro tem?
DR. BILLIE ORR: Yes, I’ve been mayor pro tem since 2017; I was voted onto the council in 2015.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What does a mayor pro tem do?
DR. BILLIE ORR: It’s basically a vice mayoral position, our charter calls it mayor pro tem. So sometimes I joke around and say, “I’m in charge of the vices.” I really try to do a lot of initiatives that I feel are better for the city. And I try to take as much off the mayor’s plate as I can. I sit on seven or eight committees. I’m always available when he’s not, but I have tried to make it more than just signing a document when Mayor Greg Mengarelli is not there. I’ve really tried to help take on a little bit more of a leadership role on lots of different things.
PRESCOTT LIVING: The pandemic has had major consequences within the state and the community.
DR. BILLIE ORR: It has. And I’m very proud of what Arizona has done. And I think Yavapai County has done an exceptional job. Unfortunately, it’s become a divisive issue, the pandemic, mask, no mask. And I think the mayor did exactly the right thing, which is if you feel that you need to wear a mask, please put one on. I wear a mask when I’m in crowds or I’m at an event. When I’m sitting with people that I know, I feel very comfortable in taking my mask off unless they ask me to put it on. And I’m very happy to do that. But a mandate? I’ve never been a person who supports mandates. I really believe personal responsibility, personal choice is really key.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What impact has the pandemic had on the city in terms of taxes, tax revenue, etc.?
DR. BILLIE ORR: Fortunately, our tax revenues have grown. We’re at about a 12% increase over last year at this time, which is amazing. But some retailers have done very well while other businesses have really been hurt. My heart goes out for them, and I’m working very hard to do what we can for the businesses on Whiskey Row and in tourism. I’m on the Tourism Advisory Committee, and I think we’re actually making some pretty great progress. The airport’s helping us, and then the Whiskey Row Alley. We’re getting that going.
And then, we’re looking at extending licenses for the bars and retail, so they can actually go into the alley. The alley can be a place where we can have service for the bars and restaurants, and even retail if they choose to do that.
We have been blessed to have some businesses that have done very well, so it has kept our taxes up. Some people are choosing to look at Prescott, and growth has become a very divisive issue within our city. You have to find a balance. You either grow, or you’re standing still and you’re being passed up.
We have to grow at a manageable rate. And I believe the City of Prescott has done that. I’m very proud of what we’ve done since I’ve been on the Council.
These issues are tough. I’ve always acted on my oath of office to “always do what is best for the City of Prescott, no matter what.” It may be bad for me or it may be bad for you, but if it’s the best thing for the City of Prescott, that’s where I will place my vote. And I stay true to that. And I will always do that for the City of Prescott. When I find that I can’t do that, then that would be my time to leave.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You serve on the Prescott Commission on Well-Being. What is that organization?
DR. BILLIE ORR: I actually wanted to get this going a couple of years ago, when the City of Prescott was noted by a Gallup poll as being a community of well-being. And they looked about 200 towns and cities. So I said, “I would really like for us to focus more on being a city of well-being.” We talk a lot about business. We talk about that tourism. What if we did something definitely for our citizens? I’ve always felt the Commission for Well-Being is a gift to our citizens and that we can help them look at the different avenues about well-being.
We have five branches of well-being. Basically, they are purpose, community, social, physical and financial. That’s where affordable living comes in. I think that’s something we do pretty well with because we are an affordable city in some ways. There are things you can do socially in the City of Prescott that don’t cost a lot of money. Our wages are kind of low, so we’re working on trying to do what we can with that.
What we hope to do is amplify and communicate on what is happening on well-being in the Prescott community. Let us tell you about what you can and can’t do, what’s out there free to you. We have amazing organizations in the City of Prescott that focus on well-being.
PRESCOTT LIVING: You mentioned the significant growth that’s occurring in Prescott, particularly related to the airport and the businesses out there. Tell us your take on that.
DR. BILLIE ORR: I just toured the new terminal building that is under construction and its going to be fabulous. It’s a beautiful terminal, very much like Prescott; you just feel that when you’re there. And I think Robin Sobotta, our airport director, has done an amazing job. And the fact that we have SkyWest United Express here just opens the gateway for us. If you drive out there, there are a lot of people who work out around the airport. CP Technologies recently brought their company to Prescott. When you drive out to the airport, it is amazing how quickly their building is going up. This is a great opportunity for Prescott and we hope to see more of these companies coming to our city.
We’re very fortunate to have Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, 3,000 amazing students, amazing staff. We have Embry-Riddle, we have Yavapai College and then we have Prescott College. I love Prescott College, Dr. Flicker’s done an amazing job with Prescott College. They’ve been a great partner downtown.
The City has done a lot downtown. We have the beautiful Hilton Garden Inn, Prescott College, what’s happening with the Founding Fathers Collective, all of that is such a plus to our downtown, the Granite Creek Corridor restoration that we’re doing.
Preserving our history and heritage. Thank goodness for the vision of Dennis Gallagher and the Western Heritage Board of Directors who are devoted to their mission.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Exactly.
DR. BILLIE ORR: It just will give back and give back and give back. I’m very involved with the Western Heritage Center. That’s about protecting our heritage, teaching our history, preserving that, but at the same time making it so we can also be prosperous. And I have seen pictures of our shops with plywood on them, boarded up because they couldn’t make a living downtown. We can never let that happen. This cannot only be for tourists. This has to be for business. It has to be for citizens. We’re all in here together.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Jon Haass of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and others are working to set up a high-tech business incubator with the Center for the Future. Can you comment about that?
DR. BILLIE ORR: The Center for the Future. God bless Dr. Haass and Jim Robb, and our city manager, Michael Lamar. I will tell you, we have so many talented people in our City. This has been a huge community effort. And now we actually have five small startups that want to be in this city.
So we’re going to help them find a place to be where they can bring in students from Embry-Riddle. Rather than constantly having that graduation and seeing them all leave our community, we can keep them right here. That is the purpose of the Center for the Future.
PRESCOTT LIVING: What else do you see ahead?
DR. BILLIE ORR: Managing the growth. We have been discovered for a long time. Prescott has always been on the list of places to retire, but I think now, fortunately, we’re also on the list of places to which to move your business. So we have been discovered by others. Wonderful climate, great outdoors, lots of amenities, affordable living. And because people want to come here, some of the housing is becoming more unaffordable. I think we’ll be managing that growth, keeping our city moving forward, because we don’t want to be stagnant.
And I think also, I would say bringing in more diversity. I would love to see a more diverse community in lots of ways, more diverse with regard to ethnicity and more diverse with regard to age. I’d love to see younger families here. I think this will happen. With a Center for the Future, most of those folks are younger. And so I think we’re going to see more families here and diversity, as we have more jobs.
PRESCOTT LIVING: Any challenges, any disappointments?
DR. BILLIE ORR: Yeah. The divisiveness. I’ve always felt that we should be a community that comes together. I had the joy and the honor of getting to know the late (Prescott advocate and preservationist) Elisabeth Ruffner, and in fact, she and I differed on political views. I will tell you, I always loved sitting with her, talking with her. She was always about civil discourse, and she would be very disappointed to see some of what’s going on today.
And so I do believe there’s a way for us to all sit down together, and listen to each other. One of the things Ronald Reagan always said is, “Find the 80% that you agree on and make that about what you’re about.”
PRESCOTT LIVING: What points of pride do you have in your career and what you’ve done?
DR. BILLIE ORR: Well, I think No 1 for me, the success is that when I’m with an organization, whether I’m a volunteer or I’m leading an organization or a staff member, I tried to understand what was needed and I made it better so that when I left that organization after four, eight, 10 years, it was better than it was when I came. And knock on wood, I will tell you, I think for me, I’m very proud of that. And my family, very proud of my family.
I’m very proud of what I’ve done for school choice. And I think we’ve made education better.
I taught second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grades. I was a K-6 principal. Then I was deputy superintendent for the state. When I went to Washington, D.C. for three years, I worked with President Bush’s staff. We worked with Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, and really worked with many states and a national organization to improve education. And I believe that public education is much better because of competition.
In Mississippi, the cities were usually divided into quadrants. And I was on the wrong side of the tracks in a very poor, kind of white-trash neighborhood. And my elementary school was not a good school. Wonderful people. Wonderful classmates. And we are still in contact today on Facebook, but we did not have the best teachers. We did not have the best opportunities.
And so then … it’s hard to catch up. We need to level as much of that playing ground as we can early on for children.
PRESCOTT LIVING: We’re pretty blessed in Prescott with medical care.
DR. BILLIE ORR: And we’ve been getting more, with Dr. Askari’s Whispering Rock development that’s coming in with Banner and MD Anderson, and Dignity Health’s partnership with Yavapai Regional Medical Center. All of those things are going to be such blessings. We’ve needed more medical care, and we’re going to get that.
PRESCOTT LIVING: It’s really remarkable.
DR. BILLIE ORR: Really. We have everything the City of Phoenix has. Golf courses, airport, parks. We have everything that they have, just at a smaller scale. So it’s a blessing. I just feel so blessed to be in this community and to be a part of making it a better community.
“I’d like to personally thank Billie Orr for being such an inspirational person to me and to all who know her in Prescott and beyond. I met Billie for the first time during the Proposition 443 Stand for Prescott Campaign, which was also when we were rolling out the first issue of Prescott Living Magazine in the summer of 2017. I have watched Billie selflessly put all of her time, energy and spirit into what she believes in. As a woman, leader, businesswoman, mother, wife and believer in God, Billie sets the highest standard to follow. Billie truly loves Prescott, the place and the people! I am so pleased to see Billie has chosen Scottsdale to relocate for her health because she won’t be too far away and look forward to knowing her forever!”
Elaine Earle, Publisher,
Prescott LIVING Magazine
“I have admired Billie from the moment I first met her. Her dedication to Prescott and the greater good of the community will be sorely missed.
“Billie, best wishes in the next phase of your life, and I look forward to continuing our conversations!”
Bea Lueck, General Manager
and Editor in Chief
Prescott LIVING Magazine
Photo: Billie with City Councilman Steve Sischka at Two’fer Tuesday radio talk show