Behind closed doors Scottsdale Schools weighs AG investigation, Birdwell contract

The board room at Mohave District Annex sat empty for six hours on Dec. 14, as Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board and district leaders moved their discussions to executive session. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

The Scottsdale Unified School District’s top leaders and their attorneys met behind closed doors for six hours on Thursday, Dec. 14, as the district prepares to make an announcement next week regarding allegations swirling locally and at the Arizona Attorney General’s office.

At the Mohave District Annex campus, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell and a select-few others spent hours in executive session as the day stretched on.

It was the third executive session held in one week, and the fifth meeting of the week overall. A special meeting is expected to be held on Tuesday, Dec. 19, Dr. Birdwell told the Independent, where a formal statement is anticipated.

The Governing Board called a special meeting at noon Thursday, Dec. 14 at the district administrative campus, 8500 E. Jackrabbit Road in Scottsdale.

Few pleasantries were exchanged between the Governing Board and district officials prior to the start of the meeting. Following the pledge of allegiance, the Governing Board immediately voted to move into executive session.

Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith, General Counsel Michelle Marshall, attorney Susan Segal of Gust Rosenfeld and Executive Admin Coordinator Sondra Como were in attendance.

Their agenda stated the following items were to be discussed in the private session:

  • Discussion and consultation for legal advice with the attorney or attorneys for the public body concerning 1. Arizona School Procurement Code and state law requirements and district policies and practices in connection with retention of architects and other construction related vendors; 2. Cooperative purchasing under the Arizona School Procurement Code and state law; and 3. Procedures for release of non-confidential information pertaining to a report being prepared concerning district procurement practices;
  • Discussion or consultation with the attorneys of the board in order to consider its position and instruct its attorneys regarding the public body’s position regarding contracts that are the subject of negotiations, or in contemplated litigation regarding architect professional services and construction
  • Discussion and consideration of the superintendent’s evaluation pursuant to Governing Board Policy CBI — Evaluation of Superintendent;
  • Discussion or consultation for legal advice regarding Item III C (superintendent’s evaluation) with the attorney or attorneys of the public body.

Just before 6 p.m., the Governing Board filed back into the board room at the district annex to adjourn the meeting. Executive sessions are strictly confidential, and discussions generally cannot be revealed to non-board members. Legal advice and personnel matters are two of seven specific instances in which a public body may discuss matters in an executive session.

On Nov. 29, the Arizona Attorney General’s office confirmed its involvement in an investigation looking into the business practices of the Scottsdale Unified School District, but cited its policy to not discuss ongoing investigations. SUSD Public Information Officer Erin Helm also confirmed a separate district investigation during a Nov. 30 emailed response to questions.

The investigations stem from the procurement process the school district utilized to hire Hunt & Caraway Architects for renovations on high school athletic fields and the design of school rebuilds. A series of events occurring in early 2016 has resulted in many Scottsdale Unified School District parents and community members questioning the ethics of their district leaders.

Questions began to sprout within the Hopi Elementary School community earlier this fall when the school was set to begin a complete tear-down and rebuild.

At a September meeting, a room full of school parents and neighbors voiced their disapproval for the proposed school design and the process in which the rebuild was being handled.

Hunt & Caraway Architects Principal Brian Robichaux had been leading the charge on Hopi’s redesign. Paperwork shows the firm was first hired by the district in April 2016 to work on a “facilities master plan” prior to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board approving the bond ballot initiative.

District documents, Arizona Corporation Commission files and procurement records show that neither Hunt & Caraway nor Orcutt-Winslow went through a public SUSD procurement process, but rather were approved through a Phoenix-based national cooperative, 1 Government Procurement Alliance in 2016.
1 Government Procurement Alliance — also known as 1GPA — is a nonprofit national governmental purchasing cooperative that allows public agencies to take advantage of existing contracts to purchase the goods and services they need from local and national vendors, according to a Request for Qualifications document dated Jan. 14, 2016.

Records posted to illustrate an architectural services RFQ for the state of Arizona, and SUSD was designated as the lead agency for the procurement.

Documents between January-December 2016 depict the details of the district’s procurement process bringing Hunt & Caraway to SUSD.

SUSD canceled a Friday, Dec. 8 scheduled interview with the Independent at the request of legal counsel.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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