Internal mending met with disappointment at Scottsdale Schools

Following a string of public displays of distaste from employees of the Scottsdale Unified School District, the governing board says it has found only disappointment and despair in its attempt to measure and improve morals withing the organization.

During a May 31 study session, the SUSD governing board and top district officials discussed organizational health, community partnerships and its uphill battle of building trust within its constituency.

The Scottsdale Unified School District employs more than 3,000 people, including about 1,550 teachers.

The meeting, held at Mohave District Annex, 8500 E. Jackrabbit Road in Scottsdale, was the last of eight meetings held in the month of May.

March and April governing board meetings saw numerous concerned individuals use their allotted three minutes of public comment to give a voice to issues they felt were going on within the district. Concerns ranged from decision making, to lack of communication, to teacher pay.

Pointing to problems in years past, district leaders looked for new ways to measure and receive honest feedback from its employees.

Dr. Denise Birdwell. (photo by Josh Martinez)

“Well we did do a survey this spring but you’re going to see that we’re not going to apply it because we also read clearly on social media that people were being encouraged to lie on the survey,” Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell told the governing board at the work session.

“Anytime you have someone out there talking about the fact that they are not going to be honest with the survey means the survey really doesn’t have a lot of value to us.”

The school leader called the recent actions frustrating, stating the main purpose of the survey was for principals to measure growth.

“As long as I’ve been on this board, we’ve had issues with surveys,” Governing Board member Pam Kirby said via telephone at the meeting. “There’s been an issue of trust for at least the past six years, and possibly beyond that.”

The governing board got a new taste of the culture they speak of on May 18, when a social media post encouraged teachers to lie on an end-of-the-year survey for principals.

An anonymous Facebook group, Respect Our Scottsdale Students, shared a posting urging teachers to lie on the first two questions of the survey in order to keep anonymity.

“Note to teachers: when we respond to the survey, we must lie on questions 1-2 if we plan to answer the rest of the questions honestly,” the Facebook post reads. “I mean, seriously, how hard is it to figure out who I am if I admit I am the 2nd Year Teacher at Hopi?”

The governing board members all condemned the posting, calling it disappointing.

“I was also disappointed to learn that teachers were being encouraged to lie on the survey,” governing board member Sandy Kravetz said.

“It does them no good because then they’re not providing us with feedback, and it does our district no good because we’re trying to move onto a path of improvement and by lying on a survey is served no purpose.”

District officials say the survey was developed through online survey platform, SurveyMonkey, which doesn’t allow the survey to be completed more than once per computer, but doesn’t stop anyone from using their phone, tablet or home computer from submitting more than one response.

The May teacher survey yielded around a 95 percent response rate, which Dr. Birdwell says is unheard of.

“You usually get 70-some percent, and we’re getting like 95 percent, which is abnormal,” she explained. “People probably took it twice.”

The governing board members directed district staff to begin looking at peer district practices, other means of measuring the organization’s health and the cost associated with using a third-party surveying method.

Kim Hartmann

“I understand it’s disappointing but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water either because there was a disgruntled group of individuals who allow them to impact this organization as a whole, because then they win,” governing board member Kim Hartmann said. “I think we need to think about this.”

Ms. Hartmann says she has worked professionally with many organizations who use surveys as a measure of performance, and use the responses as a line of communication.

“It’s not just organizational health, it’s organizational improvement,” she said.

“One of the number of dials that can reflect having a great survey, is having organizational improvement and to get to that place you need to be able to provide comments and feedback — in the best environments, you’re able to then have a conversation with it.”

Dr. Birdwell said the survey results will still be shown to principals, but with an understood warning.

“The other piece of that is, for the nine new people coming in they’re going to have to look at the culture that existed prior to them arriving,” Dr. Birdwell said. “Again, it is unfortunate.”

The nine new principals come after two school principals were promoted to district positions, one is furthering their education, and seven left the district. Dr. Birdwell says while she has heard concerns about district personnel leaving, the district is in good shape.

“There’s been some chatter in the community about the fact that more people have left the district than ever left before — that’s a myth, that’s not true,” she said.

This year 181 certified staff have given their notice, while there were 196 certified staff who left last year, Dr. Birdwell said.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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