School board’s 4-1 vote cuts ties with Dr. Birdwell, Hartwell

Scottsdale Schools Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Scottsdale Unified School District’s two embattled senior administrators will be receiving severance packages, district officials decided, as ties continue to be cut.

Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell and Chief Business and Operations Officer Louis Hartwell — both former senior administrators — will each receive an agreed upon severance package, and ultimately resolve all legal issues between Scottsdale Schools and the two employees.

Late Friday, April 6, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board voted 4-1 twice to move forward with settlement agreements for the two employees. Governing Board member Pam Kirby cast the only dissenting votes.

Ms. Kirby read a statement aloud that detailed her belief that it’s time for Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell to go, but language in the agreement requested by the employees gave her pause.

Following a 2.5-hour executive session the Governing Board reconvened its special meeting waiving attorney-client privileges to allow attorney Joel Sannes of Mesa-based law firm Udall Shumway to publicly discuss the severance agreements.

Dr. Birdwell’s severance agreement provides for a payment of $150,000, while Mr. Hartwell’s agreement provides for a payment of $30,000, according to documents provided by SUSD.

In addition to approving the severance packages, the Governing Board discussed hosting a town hall or call to the public during its April 12 meeting, but no official events have been slated.

The administrators dismissals come amidst an Arizona Attorney General’s investigation into SUSD’s business practices, among other public outcries regarding school construction projects, teacher employment agreements, a hired architecture firm, procurement practices, nepotism, conflicts of interest and overall lack of community trust for several months.

In March, the Governing Board moved to dismiss Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell. The district claims an internal investigation into alleged wrongdoings revealed Dr. Birdwell violated 14 Governing Board policies and Arizona Administrative Code, as well as her employment contract.

According to Mr. Sannes, both Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell are entitled to a hearing process under Arizona law and their contracts. Through the hearing process, the administrators are paid their salaries and benefits until the hearing ends, the hearing officer makes their recommendation and it is voted on by the board.

Mr. Hartwell had already requested a hearing, Mr. Sannes says, and Dr. Birdwell was expected to request a hearing as well. Mr. Sannes outlined the potential hearings to take two to three months for both Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By agreeing to the severance packages the district resolved its issues with the former employees, Mr. Sannes says. Additionally, the district can’t hire a new superintendent while the current superintendent remains employed, he noted.

Many of the Governing Board members based their decision on the desire to not utilize additional taxpayer funds, and to move forward.

“One thing this has shown is that we have a lot of holes, some mismanagement, some leadership issues, and as a board we need to step up and show the leadership what we need to do,” Governing Board member Allyson Beckham said during the meeting.

“I am going to vote for that severance package because I do believe in the economics of the payout compared to the possible risks. There’s a lot that still could be discovered, and believe me, I’d like to go through with that process, but I don’t believe it’s in the best interest of our students and our parents in this community even if it might be in the best interest of what I’d like to do.”

To the district’s knowledge, Dr. Birdwell has not been charged with criminal conduct or wrongdoing to date, Mr. Sannes says. Additionally, the severance agreements do not prohibit, restrict or otherwise impede SUSD’s ability to make required reports, or cooperate as needed with any federal or state authorities, he noted.

The Governing Board hosted its April 6 meeting at the Mohave District Annex. (file photo)

Agreement details, rational

Scottsdale Unified School District’s communications office sent an email at 8 p.m. on Friday evening announcing the severance agreement.

“The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board voted on April 6, 2018 to approve a severance agreement with Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell. The severance agreement will allow SUSD to move forward and initiate a search for a new superintendent, a process that could have been delayed by costly, drawn-out proceedings,” the email reads.

“Additionally, the board approved a severance agreement with Louis Hartwell, whose contract would otherwise have ended on June 30, 2018. The district thanks its staff and community for their patience and understanding while these matters were pending.”

Dr. Birdwell’s contract was accepted around Dec. 13, 2016, with an effective date of June 30, 2019, records show. The total value remaining on her current contract is over $447,000, Mr. Sannes says.

Mr. Hartwell’s total value remaining on his contract through June 30 is $57,602.

Dr. Birdwell will be paid through April 12, 2018, including her final paycheck, the severance agreement shows.

The $150,000 payment shall be provided in a lump sum payment, payable within 14 calendar days from the date of the agreement. Dr. Birdwell’s signature indicates she signed the agreement on April 5, while Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg’s signature was issued on April 6.

Mr. Hartwell’s $30,000 will also be provided in a lump sum payment, payable within 14 calendar days from the date of the agreement, also signed and dated by both parties on April 5 and 6.

The administrator’s insurance and benefits shall be paid through April 30, 2018, the agreement states, and the district shall reimburse them for the actual cost of maintaining health insurance benefits between May 1 and June 30. Additionally, the district will reimburse Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell the actual cost of maintaining dental and vision coverage in an amount not to exceed $1,000.

Through the agreement, neither Dr. Birdwell nor Mr. Hartwell is to initiate contact with any district Governing Board member, personnel or students during school or working hours, or enter or remain on district owned property for a period of six months.

In addition, the district and the administrators agree to release, acquit and forever discharge each other from and with respect to any and all claims, wages, agreements, obligations, demands and causes of action, known or unknown, suspected or not suspected, arising from the employees’ relationship with the district.

Pam Kirby (Photo by Arianna Grainey)

The request by Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell to include a section discharging them from claims was the basis for Ms. Kirby’s vote, she says.

“Although I believe it is time for Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell to go, I can not in good conscious support the settlement agreement before me,” Ms. Kirby read aloud at the meeting.

“I appreciate the intent to move beyond the controversy and move forward, however verbiage of the settlement gave me cause for concern.”

Ms. Kirby says until the district knows the extent of any possible wrongdoings, she is not comfortable asking the taxpayers to possibly forgo restitution.

“I truly understand the desire of many to quickly resolve these matters,” she said. “I understand the community feels betrayed. Yes, there are many reasons to settle, however, I would prefer to keep the restitution offer open before closing this chapter. My vote is no.”

The four other Governing Board members voted in favor of the agreements, with a role call vote being requested by Ms. Kirby. The matter appeared to be emotional for some members of the Governing Board as they prepared to publicly voice their reasons for releasing Dr. Birdwell.

“I vote in favor of the severance agreement for the reasons as outlined by our attorneys,” Governing Board member Sandy Kravetz said in giving her vote.

Ms. Beckham voted in favor of the vote, but admitted to having a hard time with the decision.

Allyson Beckham (Photo by Arianna Grainey)

“As I weigh the facts I just want to express personally that I would like to see justice,” she explained during her roll call vote. “However I’ve learned that justice comes in many forms and not always the ones that feel the best and possibly here justice needs to be pursued by the Attorney General’s Office.”

Ms. Beckham noted that regardless of the outcome at the Governing Board dais, she believes changes need to be implemented.

“I truly believe there needs to be some vital changes taking place at this district,” she said. “I think we need to reinstate leadership in our administration, our principals and our teachers. As a board and administration we must take the time and talent that we have to review, plan and prepare, which I don’t think this board and organization has done in the past.”

Ms. Beckham’s other areas of change included adding finance departments to the board’s list of areas in need of an external audit.

“Which I realize we’re there to govern and set policy, which brings me to the fact that as a board, we need to review each and every one of our policies we need to make that commitment,” she said.

Specifically, Ms. Beckham asked that the Governing Board policy that relates to Governing Board agenda preparation and dissemination be reviewed immediately.

Governing Board Vice President Kim Hartmann and President Barbara Perleberg also noted on the matter from a personal standpoint before casting their official votes.

Kim Hartmann (Photo by Arianna Grainey)

“This is an emotional, financial and practical decision,” she explained. “From a personal standpoint it’s pretty distasteful. It’s unpleasant and I personally feel betrayed and misled in some circumstances, but that is what it is and I’m sure many people feel that way.

“However, my job isn’t to make this a personal decision, it’s about what’s best for this district, what’s best for this community and most importantly, what’s best for our students.”

Ms. Hartmann says from a financial standpoint, it makes sense for the district to cut their losses. She estimates upwards of half a million dollars being spent if the district participates in the employee hearings.

“That’s equivalent to another 10 teachers in this district, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take,” she said.

Ms. Perleberg says she extends gratitude to district staff, leadership, principals and teachers for keeping the focus where it needed to be during a tumultuous time.

“But I don’t want to insinuate that this was a simple or easy decision,” Ms. Perleberg said.

Barbara Perleberg (Photo by Arianna Grainey)

“It is painful and my personal emotions and feelings of disappointment are, to say at the least, complex. I don’t have the luxury of allowing them to be factors in this tonight. The facts and considerations to be weighted are numerous and several are incredibly frustrating, to put it mildly. The scale tips to accepting this severance agreement. I do vote yes.”

With the severance agreements approved, the Governing Board was allowed to discuss the processes for searching for an interim and permanent superintendent.

The board discussed hosting an open call to the public, or a town hall-type of event, for residents to voice their priorities when looking for a new district leader.

The Governing Board’s next scheduled meeting is Thursday, April 12, which is when the event was discussed to be held, but no official schedule has been announced.

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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