2nd senior administrator resigns as Scottsdale protests outside high school

People gathered along the streets of Coronado High School in a rally for new district leadership on Feb. 13. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

As hundreds of protesters lined both sides of the street in front of Coronado High School, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board was behind closed doors in a private meeting.

A public rally calling for new district leadership and a Governing Board Executive Session were both scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave.

While the sounds of cheering, car honking, over-head news helicopters, and chants of “bye bye birdie” echoed outside, the five elected leaders met for an Executive Session to discuss or consult with its attorney regarding board policies, meeting procedures, personnel and contract matters, the district agenda says.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the Governing Board began their public regular meeting, where Dr. Birdwell announced the resignation of a second senior administrator — the second in less than a month.

Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell has decided not to renew his contract, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell announced at the Governing Board meeting.

Louis Hartwell

On Friday, Jan. 23, Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith resigned amid an internal review that deemed her in violation of conflict of interest state statutes.

Both Ms. Smith’s and Mr. Hartwell’s employments at SUSD were at the forefront of the rally calling for new district leadership. Participants cited the need for a new superintendent, new Governing Board, and fiscal responsibility, among a bevy of other things.

Mr. Hartwell was hired on Oct. 3, 2016, according to SUSD Governing Board documents. The SUSD website says his responsibilities include bond and override management, forecast planning, facilities management, asset management.

Community members believe Mr. Hartwell’s hiring is a form of nepotism, and that he was unqualified for his position due to tax documents that point to fiscal irresponsibility.

In the middle of the Superintendent’s Comments portion of the Governing Board meeting, Dr. Birdwell pointed to a list of completed and in-the-works bond projects that were overseen by Mr. Hartwell before announcing his resignation.

“However, today we received from Mr. Hartwell, that he will not seek renewal of his contract and as of June 30th, he will no longer be with the district,” Dr. Birdwell said. “I appreciate the work that he’s done. I want to thank Mr. Roehler for his work and continued support of the district.”

Dennis Roehler is the director of facilities management for SUSD.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board approved hiring Steven Chestnut, effective July 1, as the new associate superintendent. The vote was 4-1-0, with board member Allyson Beckham abstaining for feeling un-prepared for the vote, she said.

The position would allow Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell to not be as involved with the bond projects and construction jobs, the superintendent explained at the Feb. 8 study session meeting.

The scene at the school

According to social media, the Scottsdale Unified School District rally for new leadership was in the works for several weeks through advocacy group, Act Now SUSD.

Several hundred people lined Miller Road and stood on the corner of Coronado High School wielding a variety of signs.

The rally was the culmination of bad leadership decisions, and feeling unheard, many attendees vocalized at the event. Days before the rally, yard signs and ribbons were donned across the city publicizing the efforts.

Increased district security was present inside the school, as well a couple of Scottsdale Police Department officers observing the rally and public meeting.

Scottsdale Unified School District parent Drew Goodman says he was first disenfranchised last fall when the rebuild plans for Hopi Elementary School reached a fever pitch.

“I’m here to stop the corruption,” he explained at the rally. “This has just gotten beyond control, and to see some of the documents that I’ve been seeing that have been submitted to the AG’s office — it’s time that they stand up, they admit that they made a mistake, and we clean it up and move on so that our students and families can start to respect administration again.”

News broke in November 2017 that former Hunt & Caraway Architects principal Brian Robichaux was convicted of felony theft in 1998 for an incomplete job through the Arizona Department of Transportation. The architecture firm was one of two firms retained by SUSD through a state procurement process following a successful $229 million bond election in November 2016, much of which was earmarked for the rebuild of eight elementary schools.

Just before the first school rebuild was set to commence earlier this year, Hopi Elementary School’s community showed up in mass to an evening meeting demanding answers from the architect and district officials about the process and decision making.

An Attorney General’s investigation has been launched into the district’s procurement practices and hired outside legal counsel Susan Segal has conducted two internal reviews.

Ultimately, parents and community members are calling for a new superintendent, and three people have filed paperwork to run for the Governing Board in the upcoming election.

“I hired a firm not an individual and had no more opportunity to access the details of his life 20 years ago than someone who subscribes to your paper would of every reporter,” Dr. Birdwell said in a Feb. 9 statement to the Independent, about the perceived allegations.

At the rally, former SUSD employee Anne Hanson carried a sign saying “It shouldn’t hurt to work in SUSD!” She retired in January after two decades with the district, when her position was abolished in April.

“I came because I can not stand by and watch the district that I served for 21 years under this deplorable leadership that changed our vision from ‘engaging, educating and empowering,’ to ‘we educate,’” Ms. Hanson said.

“The reduced morale, the depths — you can not have children learning when their teachers have this overwhelming cognitive dissonance of not being worth anything. If they care about children, they must care about teachers and that’s why I’m here.”

A parking lot gathering was first hosted on Nov. 14, 2017, supporting the Scottsdale Education Association, who has been vocal about the expiration of their teacher employment agreement for nearly a year.

The annual teacher employment agreement has been a formal agreement by both parties before going into effect July 1. Last spring district administration began asking the Governing Board to suspend parts of the agreement for the remainder of the year, citing a need to update the teacher-hiring process.

Speaking at Governing Board meetings — oftentimes wearing matching T-shirts to show solidarity — has been a regular strategy for teachers since last March when there was swirling concerns following changes to a teacher employment agreement, changing teacher transfer options and the timeline in which teachers are hired.

In January, Scottsdale Education Association President Julie Cieniawski announced that 92 percent of those responding to a December SEA survey voiced “no confidence” in current Scottsdale Unified School District leadership.

Kiva Elementary School teacher Bonnie Bezon says she was at the rally for her students, noting parents are well aware of the issues going on.

“When our TEA was invalidated, that caused teachers to feel less safe in this district, and then you add that to some of the things we’re hearing in the news, you add that to some of the things we’re seeing on our campuses… it’s time to stand up,” Ms. Bezon said.

“It takes a lot to galvanize teachers to get out of our classrooms — we just want to teach our kids, we just want to go in and make those little minds the brightest minds we can make, and this is not allowing us to do that.”

Ms. Bezon pointed to the January SEA announcement, saying she believes the 92 percent vote is accurate.

“I would say, the percentages are right,” she said. “I could maybe name one or two people that are kind of like ‘Eh, this is…’ and everyone else is like ‘what is happening? what reality are we living in?’”

A wall within Coronado High School dons secondary education and post-graduation options. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

In support of Scottsdale Schools

Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg issued a prepared statement before the meeting began.

“We recognize tonight, an organized voice of concern,” Ms. Perleberg said in the statement.

“Tonight, inside, we will also hear — as we have over the past few months — about the tremendous work and impactful conversations taking place at each and every school. Our job is to take all of these voices and weigh them together as we try to make the best, most informed decisions we can for our students. That is what being a Governing Board member is about, and I, and the rest of the board, remain committed do that work. Thank you.”

Parent and Scottsdale Unified School District Bond and Override Oversight Committee member Jose Velarde says he disagrees with the protesters.

“For a change, we have a leader and board that listen to teachers and value their opinions. Not my words. Teachers gave me those words,” Mr. Velarde said in a Feb. 13 emailed response to questions. “They don’t speak out because they ‘don’t need the aggravation that would come to them from the SEA ‘leadership.’ Also their words.”

Dr. Birdwell’s leadership, which was initiated on Jan. 11, 2016, after former Superintendent Dr. David Peterson resigned in December 2015. Dr. Peterson was about one year into a three-year contract renewal at the time.

Dr. Birdwell first agreed to an annualized $200,000 contract from Jan. 19, 2016 to June 30, 2016. On April 7, she signed a second annualized contract for $204,000, effective July 1 through June 30, 2017. At its Dec. 13, 2016 meeting, the Governing Board approved a permanent contract with Dr. Birdwell, effective through June 30, 2019.

Mr. Velarde doesn’t believe Scottsdale Schools needs new leadership, he says, noting he is a supporter the Coronado Success Initiative. The CSI is an overhaul of Coronado High School that has begun to bear fruit earlier this year. Just before the end of the first semester, all 228 seniors at Coronado had filled out a college application.

“New leadership? This is who we elected. This is the superintendent many of us advocated for… why would we need new leadership?” he stated.

“Because some teachers and some parents think that they should get to dictate how things go? The district’s metrics showed a steep decline. The teachers that keep claiming that they had it under control and know best how to fix it, weren’t doing so. So tell me how they were disrespected? What job had you ever had where you dictated to your bosses how things should be done, especially when things were going so poorly?”

Mr. Velarde says he’s heard false information about the Coronado Success Initiative, and the protesters don’t represent all of SUSD.

“Parents and community members who actually have a stake there are very happy with the direction they’ve been set upon,” he explained. “They take it personally that the protesters are trying to change what’s going on, and keep lying about what’s happening.”

New leadership is not the answer, Mr. Velarde says of the rally.

“They want to fire Birdwell. For what? Ask them to name you a fire-able offense she has committed. I have. No answer,” he said of the outspoken upset community members.

“I’ve asked them what will happen if and when the AG announces there were no crimes committed by Dr. B or the board. Their answer? Mostly evading the question.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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