Report: Hostile workplace prompts Scottsdale Schools superintendent to resign

Dr. David Peterson, Scottsdale Unified School District superintendent, has resigned his position at Scottsdale Schools citing a hostile workplace as a major catalyst for his premature departure. (File Photo)

Dr. David Peterson, Scottsdale Unified School District superintendent, has resigned his position at Scottsdale Schools citing a hostile workplace as a major catalyst for his premature departure. (File Photo)

The sudden resignation earlier this month of Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent Dr. David Peterson came after nearly two years of bullying, intimidation, harassment — and even extortion — according to a recent report provided to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board.

The report, a “Chronology of Events” leading up to the resignation of Dr. Peterson, takes specific aim at the actions of two Governing Board members: Pam Kirby and Barbara Perleberg.

David Peterson

David Peterson

Superintendent Peterson abruptly announced his resignation Friday, Dec. 11, after only about one year into a three-year contract renewal.

In the report, Dr. Peterson claims that over the last 24 months Ms. Kirby and Ms. Perleberg cultivated a bullying culture that included “intimidation and extortion,” which ultimately forced him to resign — and even contemplate legal action against the district.

Both board members deny the allegations, but do acknowledge there existed a poor relationship between superintendent and Governing Board. Both members claim they always acted in the best interest of the district.

Unknown at the time of the public announcement of Dr. Peterson’s resignation was the creation of an 11-page “Chronology of Events” document provided to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board. The report was provided to the board sometime in early December, records obtained by the Independent show.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Scottsdale Schools Chief Financial Officer Daniel O’Brien had a hand in compiling the “Chronology of Events” document with Superintendent Peterson. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused. 

“Due to the hostile work environment and harassing manner in which Superintendent Peterson has been treated and the lack of protections provided, even though he has requested that Governing Board policies and employee agreements be followed, Superintendent Peterson has decided that he cannot continue working at the district,” the report to the board stated.

The “Chronology of Events” document is written in both the first and third person when talking about Dr. Peterson; however, no authorship is being claimed by district personnel, officials say. The Scottsdale Independent obtained a copy of the “Chronology of Events” from SUSD through a public records request.

Superintendent Peterson’s resignation, which is being classified as “retirement,” becomes effective Monday, Jan. 4, 2016.

Superintendent Peterson paints a picture of “bullying, retaliation, false light, harassment, extortion, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Although I have reported these violations to the SUSD legal counsel and Governing Board president, nothing has changed and recent events indicate that this behavior is only getting worse,” the report states.

Chronology of events

Between the period of November 2013 and November 2015, Superintendent Peterson describes instances where Governing Board policies were not followed and, according to him, examples where board members Perleberg and Kirby overstepped their boundaries and committed acts of outright extortion.

According to Dr. Peterson, one example of political extortion occurred last September when Ms. Kirby allegedly told Superintendent Peterson she would help support an elementary school bond — if in exchange, he would support Gov. Doug Ducey’s education funding plan.

“She said that if I would stand with her on the Governor’s Trust Plan, she would support the Elementary School Bond,” Superintendent Peterson said of his account of an incident that allegedly to take place Sept. 12, 2015 at the SUSD Foundation Gala.

Superintendent Peterson provided a separate account of this instance to Governing Board President Bonnie Sneed the Monday following the Saturday event.

In December 2013, Dr. Peterson claims Ms. Perleberg told him she would not support him unless he reorganized the leadership team at Arcadia High School.

According to the report, “the Arcadia Math Department includes the brother of Ms. Perleberg, who in November 2013 said she wouldn’t support Superintendent Peterson if he didn’t replace certain numbers of his leadership team.”

From November 2013 to January 2014 Superintendent Peterson claims Ms. Kirby encouraged him to terminate a number of assistant principals in return for her support of his contract renewal.

“She stated that he was doing a good job and she liked him, but if he did not agree to fire his three assistant superintendents, she would not vote for his contract renewal,” the document states of a period when Superintendent Peterson’s contract was up for renewal.

According to the chronology report, “Superintendent Peterson quickly ended this offensive conversation. He felt he was being extorted to save his job.”

Superintendent Peterson, in the report, claims at the Jan. 8, 2015 Governing Board meeting, “this truth finally came out publicly and shows the culture of bullying, a hostile work environment, intimidation and extortion.”

In the spring of 2014, Ms. Kirby allegedly tried to force a public relations professional onto the district and threatened political fallout if that person, someone under her employment, was not hired to oversee district communications.

According to the report, “subsequent e-mails about hiring this individual occurred from Ms. Kirby and it was evident she was not happy Superintendent Peterson did not do it. She also wanted Superintendent Peterson to try and find an alternative way to hire the firm that would not require the district to follow the procurement rules.”

In the fall of 2014 a meeting between Ms. Kirby, Ms. Perleberg, Superintendent Peterson and Dr. Andi Fourlis, SUSD director of teaching and learning, resulted in a signed statement to the Governing Board from the district leadership alerting the board president to fears of bullying, hostility and racism.

“A statement signed by the leadership team was given to the Governing Board president, and SUSD legal counsel was made aware of this courageous action in light of the previous hostility and retaliation,” Dr. Peterson’s statement reads.

On April 7, 2015 Superintendent Peterson alerted district HR and general counsel asking for help and clarification on employee protections regarding bullying and harassment. Between May 19 and May 20 Superintendent Peterson claims SUSD general counsel vacillated between offering him workplace protections and to investigating his allegations.

The report states, “SUSD General Counsel (May 20) sent an e-mail to Superintendent Peterson in which Counsel states his concerns need to be addressed and asked for any and all facts so counsel can investigate,” the document states. “This message was contrary to the one received the previous day.”

On June 5, 2015 during a meeting between Superintendent Peterson and Governing Board President Sneed, he alerted district officials to his likely pursuit of legal actions against the district.

“This was the first formal notice Superintendent Peterson had that he would have to take personal legal action against the District, and that would necessitate filing a claim on his own and there was nothing the district could do to stop the harassing by his supervisors.”

In his written statement, Dr. Peterson also alleges Ms. Kirby violated Open Meetings law with her social media posts regarding facility update options through the use of public funds on Sept. 21, 2015 and Oct. 2, 2015.

“Ms. Kirby posted meeting information for BRAC on a Social Media page and talked about Governing Board meetings and options she will discuss as a Board member on the page,” the document states. “These actions are potential Open Meetings law violations.”

Board members defend themselves

Governing Board members Kirby and Perleberg were given opportunities to defend themselves.

Pam Kirby

Pam Kirby

Ms. Kirby says she is withholding in-depth comment as the full legal repercussions of Dr. Peterson’s allegations are yet to be realized.

“My priority has been and continues to be ensuring taxpayer dollars reach our teachers and students, and to stop some of the losses taking place within our district,” she said in a Dec. 20 written statement.

“My mantra was, is, and will always be achievement and accountability to achieve these objectives. To preserve the integrity of any internal reviews I am going to withhold further comment at this time.”

Ms. Perleberg says the accusations are untruthful.

“To put it simply, I am very disappointed in the characterizations Dr. Peterson implies in his ‘Chronology of Events,’” she said in a Dec. 21 written statement.

Barbara Perleberg

Barbara Perleberg

“While I will certainly own the opinions I have expressed as a board member, there are several recollections and insinuations that I strongly disagree with and will be committed to clarifying and/or correcting.”

Ms. Perleberg says she has put efforts toward creating a positive work environment for the superintendent of Scottsdale Schools.

“I have always strived to have a positive, constructive relationship with Dr. Peterson focused on strengthening trust, communication, and collaboration within SUSD,” she said.

“I will continue to have respect for his tireless service as we thoroughly address the claims made, and I believe the resolution of these issues will in no way distract our amazing education professionals from their invaluable work serving the needs of our students. I am confident our board will move forward and work together diligently on the task of finding an excellent interim superintendent as well as the strong, permanent leadership our incredible district deserves.”

While there were a total of 38 allegations made against district personnel and Governing Board members, it remains unclear if Superintendent Peterson intends on filing a notice of claim against SUSD.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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