Birdwell defends integrity of Scottsdale Schools as claims plague district

Signs calling for new leadership are placed along a fence abutting Hohokam Elementary School at the intersection of Oak Street and Granite Reef Road. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Despite allegations and claims that have forced one senior administrator to resign at the Scottsdale Unified School District, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell remains steadfast in her assumption there has been no wrong doing.

Meanwhile, a rally calling for new Scottsdale Schools leadership has been planned for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, and a Change.org petition has been launched. The petition hit its goal by garnering more than 1,000 electronic signatures.

“The most important word in the first question is ‘perceived,’” she said in a Feb. 19 statement to the Independent, which was in response to a list of submitted questions. “There is no scandal, there is no wrong doing in procurement.”

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.

“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 her statement.

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, hired outside legal counsel Susan Segal has conducted two internal reviews, the district’s Chief Financial Officer resigned and most recently, an associate superintendent has been hired.

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 am calling for a new superintendent,” Scottsdale Unified School District parent Dana Fuller said Jan. 31.

Ms. Fuller, a mother of five, says she began digging into the school district because of the curiosity surrounding the Hopi Elementary School rebuild.

“I started digging in order to determine the truth. I pulled public records and made public records requests from SUSD that they have been very slow to response to or unresponsive to my request completely,” she explained. “The layers of unethical or irresponsible business practice I documented was astounding.”

Dr. Denise Birdwell

Birdwell: facts are facts

The leader of Scottsdale Schools’ 29 campuses and 23,000 students maintains the facts prevail.

Ms. Segal, an attorney at local law firm Gust Rosenfeld, has thus far issued two reports to the Governing Board and top district leadership.

The first internal review and report on Mr. Robichaux, Hunt & Caraway and procurement, conducted by Ms. Segal in December 2017 found the district at no fault for hiring the firm.

The second review and report was presented to the Governing Board on Jan. 30, on former Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith and her conflict of interest with a local consulting firm.

Ms. Smith held the title of chief financial officer for SUSD for less than one year.

The CFO’s conflict of interest arose following the district entering into a monetary agreement with Professional Group Public Consulting, Inc. — also known as PGPC — of which Ms. Smith is named president and director. Her sister also holds a stake in the company, which she failed to disclose on two conflict of interest forms.

While old forms and outdated processes may be to blame within the district, Ms. Smith was at fault for not properly disclosing her conflict of interest with PGPC, Ms. Segal says.

Dr. Birdwell says SUSD has used 1 Government Procurement Alliance — also known as 1GPA — prior to her arrival in January 2016. 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.

Through 1GPA, services such as Hunt & Caraway Architects go through a procurement process at the state-level. Chosen vendors are available to school districts throughout Arizona.

“As to the future and what the portends based on the current situation, there is no need to reiterate the current reality as I’ve addressed that here already, but to say that the facts prevail,” Dr. Birdwell said.

“Facts also support my ongoing commitment to high standards and ethical actions in all we do at SUSD.”

Dr. Birdwell points to the dislike of change as a reason that community members are upset.

“Anytime changes occur in an entrenched culture, there are those who will find it uncomfortable. For too many years, SUSD rested on its laurels and was not serving the entire district well,” Dr. Birdwell said. “The current administration is working to change that. Much of the disruption has been brought on by a handful of ‘union’ leaders who have a hard time with any authority that focuses on the issues of students rather than adults.”

On Feb. 8 the Governing Board took the steps to begin analyzing its current practices and processes, some of which are said to have been in place for several years.

“So when we talk about processes — how can we take the lessons learned over the last few months and say ‘is it time to take a deeper dive into some of these areas and look at these processes?’” Dr. Birdwell told the Governing Board at the Feb. 8 meeting.

Pam Kirby

The Governing Board members agreed in the need to evaluate their workings, and pointed to procurement processes, human resources and financial reporting.

“The whole idea behind this, in my opinion, is to instill confidence. Not only from our community, but also our board,” Governing Board Member Pam Kirby said at the meeting.

Also on 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 will allow Dr. Birdwell and Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell to not be as involved with the bond projects and construction jobs, the superintendent explained at the Feb. 8 study session meeting.

A home on east Edgemont Avenue in Scottsdale displays new leadership signs in its front yard. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

The will of the people

The rally for new school leadership is planned to begin one hour before the Governing Board’s monthly regular meeting at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave., on Feb. 13.

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 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.

The district administration is crafting a yet-to-come handbook, district officials said earlier this fall, which appears to be a replacement for the TEA. The handbook was also discussed at the Feb. 8 SUSD Governing Board meeting.

Assistant Superintendent of Personnel and Specialized Services Dr. Pam Sitton told the Governing Board the handbook will be presented soon, as teacher contracts will be issued in the coming months.

Dr. Sitton says the committee representation working on the handbook includes 30 teachers, four principals and two district administrators.

After becoming interested in SUSD’s recent actions, Ms. Fuller says she was surprised when she saw how unhappy teachers were at Governing Board meetings.

“However, what I wasn’t fully aware of prior to attending the board meetings was how profoundly unhappy the teachers are under the superintendent’s leadership,” Ms. Fuller explained. “Also by speaking publicly, I had teachers approach me to tell me their concerns. I got a better picture of what was going on and how serious the situation was. The combination of these two issues make Denise Birdwell’s leadership unacceptable to me.

“When someone creates a culture where teacher morale is low and fear reigns, that is also not in the best interest of my children. New SUSD leadership is what is necessary to redefine what is in the best interest of my children.”

Ms. Fuller says she is also calling for a new Governing Board, saying they have let the SUSD parents down.

“I understand that nobody can act alone, but not one of them took the opportunity to call for executive session or advise staff to add any of these items to the upcoming Governing Board agendas,” she said. “Nor did they call for an executive session to be able to discuss these serious situations that there are suppose to be the checks and balances for.”

Ms. Fuller uses the Dec. 12, 2017, Governing Board meeting as an example where Ms. Smith’s conflict of interest issues were openly discussed through public comments.

“Instead of even pretending to be concerned about the possibility of self dealings on her watch, Kim Hartmann makes it a point to say to Laura Smith on the record, that she is one of the brightest financial minds that she has worked with and that she (Laura Smith) was doing a great job. This is not being a good steward of your school district,” she said.

Act Now SUSD has created yard signs and ribbons that proponents are stamping across the district. People from every school have been in contact with Ms. Fuller, she says.

“The Governing Board needs to see the will of the people and listen to it. I know there is a huge swell of discontent that has existed with our district leadership and specifically with our superintendent. We are just tapping into it,” she 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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