A collection of parents, certain administrators and a faction of educators in the Scottsdale Unified School District appear to have lost the ear of the entity’s top administrator — and they’re mad as hell and want everybody to know about it.
A group of about 75 gathered Oct. 16 in a downstairs auditorium at the Scottsdale Civic Center Library to collectively air grievances and laud each other’s claims against the Scottsdale Unified School District, specifically Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell.
The group has identified itself as “United Scottsdale” and claims its numbers are legion, but few were willing to go on the record with the Scottsdale Independent to substantiate claims made against the district.
United Scottsdale members claim they must remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from top district officials. Matt Kruse, however, an organizational consultant to the Arizona Education Association, unloaded myriad claims against the district during the meeting.
Prior to Mr. Kruse’s presentation, Kendis Drake, who said she was representing Arcadia homeowners, called into question the district’s alleged lack of approaching her HOA for its input regarding the pending rebuild of Hopi Elementary School, 5110 E. Lafayette Blvd.
Patti Beckham, another concerned resident, also voiced staunch concerns to the crowd of her interpretation the financial stewardship at Scottsdale Schools is corrupt.
“We are pleased to have Kendis Drake of the Hopi community with us tonight to share the Hopi concerns with you,” is how Mr. Kruse prefaced Ms. Drake’s address to the crowd.
“The Hopi neighbors were part of the planning of this meeting, and devised the name ‘United Scottsdale’ for our volunteer group. Unfortunately, after this meeting was calendered, Dr. Birdwell and the Governing Board scheduled a meeting at Hopi school for the same evening.”
United Scottsdale claims against the district include:
- The group contends a 2 percent increase to teacher salaries has been negated by a purposeful addition of three work days to the calendar of SUSD educators;
- The group claims district leadership is purposefully removing principals from local schools to disrupt the education process;
- A purposeful misrepresentation of teachers and professional staff as obstacles in education;
- The purposeful abolishment of the Teacher Employment Agreement;
- The failure of district officials to approve a classified employment agreement with classified staff;
- The group calls into question data provided by both Arizona State University and SUSD regarding the Coronado Success Initiative;
- The group calls into question the local Governing Board disregarding an employee survey that showed district leadership in a negative light;
- The group claims the Governing Board and Superintendent Birdwell are in cahoots as evidence by last-minute meeting postings, a showing of disrespect to community members by both Governing Board members and members of the administration and an excessive number of executive sessions;
- The group made claims that one if not some “coffee with the superintendent” events are a violation of open meeting law, making claims too many board members may have attended;
- They question if a facilities master plan exists for the entire district;
- The group claims nepotism on the behalf of the district as Superintendent Birdwell is accused of hiring close personal friends — Lauren Smith and Louis Hartwell among others — for top administrative positions;
- The group claims the current architect pegged for the Hopi reconstruction project is a friend of Dr. Birdwell and had done work at her previous school district: the Higley Unified School District; and
- The group claims there are too many administrators at SUSD.
Mike Peabody, a SUSD parent and who led the question-and-answer segment of the Oct. 16 United Scottsdale rally, says the group is looking for new Governing Board candidates to run during the next election cycle and is seeking to end the alleged bullying by district leadership.
“The simple answer is we are a group of concerned citizens who came together close to a year ago,” he said during an Oct. 17 phone interview.
“We are not incorporated, we are not a registered group or anything like that, but we are a united group of concerned parents and teachers. I have heard so many stories about teachers feeling threatened in schools that they have been, in some cases for more than 25 years.”
Superintendent Birdwell joined Scottsdale Schools as interim superintendent on Jan. 11, 2016, following former Superintendent Dr. David Peterson’s abrupt resignation 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.
District refutes charges
The substantial legal and unethical claims of activity made against both the Scottsdale Unified District Governing Board and its top administrators has turned the day-to-day operations at Scottsdale schools, in some instances, into a toxic environment, people close to the situation contend.
“We had all life cycles studied at each school through an external company, to create a demographic study of the district,” is how Superintendent Birdwell responded to the charge that no facilities master plan exists at the educational entity.
“In that study, we considered type of construction and continuous repair of the aging buildings, and we also looked at the enrollment data. That information helped us identify the schools most urgently needing rebuilds, so that we could move forward. We are now using that information to develop a long-term plan, though it doesn’t currently exist in the single document form.”
When asked if there is a working document available for public view, Superintendent Birdwell confirmed there is one but the plan is largely dependent on student enrollment totals.
“Yes, a time chart has been developed, however, it is contingent on bond sales and student enrollment changes.”
She steadfastly denies the claim she is hiring unqualified friends and family members for top administrative positions.
The United School group claimed Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith and Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell were unqualified to hold their positions at the district. Mr. Kruse, during his presentation, cited research that suggests both in question do not hold the proper qualifications for the positions they hold.
“I have absolutely not hired any of my family members,” Superintendent Birdwell said.
“I have, however, hired colleagues I have successfully worked with in the past, based on their resumes and my own positive experiences working with them. It is very common, in education, for teachers, principals, administrators and other staff to be married or related to other employees in their same district. Education is a ‘family’ industry in that way.”
Through various degrees of separation — an in-law of a blood relative, that sort of thing — Mr. Kruse laid out the claims of nepotism made by the United Scottsdale community. He cited conflict-of-interest declarations made by Ms. Smith, and private consulting work done by both Ms. Smith and Mr. Hartwell as the basis for his nepotism charge.
The superintendent defended both employees.
“Ms. Smith has worked with multiple school districts across the state of Arizona and has many years of experience in school finance,” Superintendent Birdwell said to a direct line of questioning about the hiring of Ms. Smith.
“She has already impressed the Governing Board repeatedly with her transparency and her attention to detail when it comes to SUSD finances. Her knowledge and experience in the complicated realm of school finance shows in the increased accountability and in the Governing Board’s stronger grasp of the budget they ultimately oversee.”
Superintendent Birdwell echoed a similar sentiment regarding the hiring of Mr. Hartwell.
“Mr. Hartwell was first hired to oversee information technology and asset recovery and management,” she explained.
“He stepped up at a time of need for the district, bringing his experience in both business contracting and construction as well as public education — a rare combination, which makes him especially qualified to oversee educational construction projects under the umbrella of our bond.”
Superintendent Birdwell also defends the use of architects and the construction company tapped for the reconstruction of Hopi Elementary School.
“There are a limited number of architects and contractors that specialize in educational builds in Arizona, and having worked through rebuilds and new builds in multiple school districts myself, I do have experience with a few of the Governing Board’s chosen vendors as well as some that have not been selected for projects,” she said.
“Construction companies I have worked with include D.L. Withers, Chasse Building Team, Haydon Building Corp, McCarthy Building Companies and CORE Construction. Architects I have worked with include NTD Architecture, Hunt & Caraway and Emc2 Group Architects, among others.”
Not on that list was Orcutt Winslow, which has been tapped for architectural services for the renovations at Cheyenne Traditional School and Pima Elementary School, Superintendent Birdwell points out.
“This is my first experience working with Orcutt Winslow, and I look forward to seeing their work come to life. I also look forward to working with other firms approved under the procurement process.”
Superintendent Birdwell also went on the record with the Independent saying that all procurement policies have been followed to the letter.
Records show the formal process followed for the pending reconstruction of Hopi Elementary were:
- The district issued a Construction Manager at Risk for the Hopi Elementary School Rebuild.
- The request for qualifications was issued by SUSD on March 1, 2017.
- Statement of qualifications were due to the district 11 a.m. March 28, 2017.
- Three submittal packages were received in a timely fashion as the evaluation committee met 8 a.m. March 30, 2017 to begin scoring.
- The first round of scoring ranked the three firms based on the RFQ evaluation criteria.
- The district contacted the highest scoring firm on March 31, 2017 to schedule a negotiations meeting for the Design/Preconstruction services, which was held 1 p.m. April 5, 2017 and verbal agreements were made.
- The unanimous recommendation of the evaluation committee that the award be given to CORE Construction.
Rumor and innuendo
The United Scottsdale group appears to be helmed by Mr. Peabody.
“We were actually looking to have close to 250 people,” he said, noting the lower-than-expected turnout citing sabotage on the side of the district as a community meeting was also scheduled 30 minutes later in neighboring Phoenix.
“I would have loved to see more people there, but the information we went over was crucial. It was good that a lot of people came and heard that had no idea what is going on.”
When asked if the only solution to the internal SUSD dilemma is to have Superintendent Birdwell removed, Mr. Peabody responded, “I am not going to be as finite as Birdwell has to go.”
“The leading by fear and intimidation has to go,” he said noting that teachers are scared of retaliation. “The teachers are afraid of losing their job and not being able to teach — in all honesty teaching is a thankless profession and you do not make a lot of money.”
Mr. Peabody says teachers are afraid to speak up and this is not an issue of educators being scared of being held accountable.
“I have heard their stories and I have seen their stories,” he said. “Is it wrong to demand excellence? No. There is room for improvement but the initiative was done under false pretenses and they could do a hell of a lot better job.”
Mr. Peabody says former Superintendent Dr. David Peterson and former Chief Financial Officer Danny O’Brien did a much better job.
“The plans were already done,” Mr. Peabody claims for the Hopi Elementary reconstruction. “Danny O’Brien got bids for architects and construction companies and those were all zeroed out — no bid at all. As we have been told by district officials it wasn’t even a question that Core was going to win the bid.”
Mr. Peabody declined to say where he was getting his information.
“Dr. Peterson was tremendously focused on the kids,” he said. “I am not at liberty to speak as to why Dr. Peterson left his position, but the reason that (was made) public is not the true reason why. There is more to his departure then what is said, and I can’t say anymore.”
Mr. Peabody asked why the Governing Board fails to question its superintendent.
“They would question every single thing that Dr. Peterson would do. The level of questioning is just not existent,” he said. “In truthfulness, having new blood on the board would be good. Having the public pressure on this would be fantastic.”
To say or not to say?
Each member of the Governing Board was asked direct questions about the allegations rendered at the United Scottsdale rally.
Board members Pam Kirby and Kim Hartmann did not respond to requests for comment.
“SUSD works hard to go above and beyond the transparency standards required of public school districts,” said Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg in an Oct. 17 statement.
“And yet, with all the information available, it appears that rumors, half-truths, and misinformation are much more prevalent in our community than facts. The alternate realities created in blogs and on social media is a disturbing symptom of our internet age, and SUSD is certainly not immune.”
President Perleberg says her support for Superintendent Birdwell is unwaivering.
“I have confidence in Dr. Birdwell’s leadership team,” she said.
“Our procurement processes are followed, and appropriate criteria, which can include past positive experiences, is used when choosing our vendors. Our Governing Board has had very honest, public discussions about the goals and direction of our district.”
The rumor mill is a powerful thing, President Perleberg says, but seeking the truth is everyone’s charge in the 21st Century.
“I encourage our community to seek true understanding, and have a dose of healthy skepticism when faced with the rumor mill,” she said.
Governing Board member Sandy Kravetz says she and her fellow members are striving to create the best possible environment for both student and teacher.
“The SUSD Governing Board strives to make our decision making and overall district operations as transparent as possible to inform our constituents, and reduce the rumor mill,” she said in an Oct. 17 statement.
“We have several avenues of communication through which our community can be engaged: broadcasting meetings, community forums, website, social media, email (both external and internal) and our Advantage semi-annual publication.”
Ms. Kravetz also feels accurate data is coming through district leadership.
“Since Dr. (Anna) McCauley and Laura Smith joined our district, they continue to provide our community with more in-depth student and financial data than in years past,” she said. “As with previous superintendents, I believe it is their prerogative to work with a leadership team with whom he/she can best collaborate to serve the mission of the organization.”
While Governing Board member Allyson Beckham says she doesn’t “make personal comments regarding district employees,” she did offer her thoughts on the district as a public body.
“I believe our school district is transparent,” she said “It is a public institution with defined state statutes and regulations that must be followed. Arizona school districts are also audited and held accountable for their actions. No, it doesn’t bother me that Hunt and Caraway is an architectural firm that did work in the Higley School District.”