Scottsdale teachers decry changes in hiring process

A view of one of the many Scottsdale Unified School District school sites. (File photo)

Late last year, Christine Marsh, a teacher at Chaparral High School in the Scottsdale Unified School District, was named 2016 Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Education Foundation.

Three months into 2017, Ms. Marsh announced she is leaving SUSD and has accepted a teaching position in another district.

The announcement comes weeks before SUSD officials can even begin their round of hiring needed teachers.

While top teachers in the city, state and nation are searching and finding their new jobs for next year, Scottsdale is restricted by the terms of its Teacher Employment Agreement on when and how it can begin negotiating with its current staff and recruiting new teachers to fill potential vacancies.

SUSD Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell says that TEA documents needs immediate alterations if the district intends on retaining and recruiting the best teachers.

During a March 16 Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board special meeting, Dr. Birdwell presented reasoning and data as to why the district should begin its competitive hiring earlier in the year instead of waiting until the end of the school year — April, May and June — to hire teachers.

“Every day I am amazed at systems that exist that have lost the focus of the market, and the time in which we’re dealing with in education,” Dr. Birdwell said while opening up her presentation to the governing board.

Education has changed drastically in the last 10 years, she says, and with the downturn in Arizona the state has lost 2,000 teachers.

“We believe the TEA has some issues in it that causes us some frustration. Now I’m going to emphasize this came to my attention Feb. 24 in an email from Rony (Assali),” Dr. Birdwell said. “I didn’t realize the depth of the processes in Scottsdale, and its impact. It’s not a Coronado issue — it’s an SUSD issue of getting the very best teachers.”

As it was formally written, the TEA and its timeline required the district to resolve issues with unassigned Scottsdale Schools teachers, transfer requests and annual contracts before seeking outside candidates to fill vacancies.

The timeline ranges from Feb. 17 through April 30.

Dr. Birdwell thinks that timeline is too prohibitive and asked the board to consider revising it.

Teachers crowded the study session room at the Mohave District Annex, 8500 E. Jackrabbit Road, to hear what the elected district officials had to say and what decision they would reach.

Denise Birdwell

Consternation around SUSD’s TEA regarding staff assignments, transfers and campus department chairs appears to stem from a Feb. 24 email, according to Dr. Birdwell, when issues within the process were brought to her attention.

The board ultimately voted 5-0 to suspend the transfer section of the 2016-17 TEA and adopt a new expedited staffing timeline.

The changes will allow the district, through the end of the current TEA, which ends June 30, 2017, to begin conversations with inside and outside candidates beginning March 20.

The governing board also voted, 4-1 with board member Allyson Beckham dissenting, to suspend the language regarding department chairs in the 2016-17 TEA.

Campus department chairs will now be considered “instructional leadership teams,” and the process for which they are appointed will be taken away from department teachers and placed in the hands of the principal.

Dr. Birdwell says the changes are necessary in order to secure contracts for the top teachers and not lose them to other districts. She says the district’s transfer process takes precedent.

A Scottsdale Education Association representative, Arcadia High School math teacher Rony Assali, was the author of a Feb. 24 email to the district and the voice representing teachers at the meeting.

The staffing change comes on the heels of news that SUSD teacher Christine Marsh, — selected by the Arizona Education Foundation as its 2016 Teacher of the Year — had sought out a job at neighboring Cave Creek Unified School District.

Both the district and the teachers seemed to agree there are improvements to be made in the timeline in which staff is hired, but Mr. Assali emphasized the fact there was little-to-no communication with teachers.

Rony Assali

“On Tuesday, less than 48 hours ago, we were told as teachers that there was going to be a massive change that was going to be presented to the board for board approval,” Mr. Assali explained.

Mr. Assali and the group of teachers supporting him from the audience felt they were being granted an opportunity to plead their case before the decision was made. During special meetings and study sessions, however, there was little opportunity for public comment.

“In my opinion, when we talk about working together it just seems far away from that,” Mr. Assali said.

“So I want you to realize — at least to teachers — this is not an example of teachers’ voices being in the room. This is not an example of teachers being heard. Putting teacher input, voice and professional experience on a 15-minute block at the 11th hour, prior to a vote that you’re being asked to vote on is more insulting than it is inclusive.”

District perspective

Dr. Birdwell says during the Coronado High School staffing interviews, there were 11 teachers who opted out of their position on the Dons campus.

“We posted the positions, we wanted to see if we could attract,” Dr. Birdwell explained.

“When we got that email (from Mr. Assali), I said ‘explain to me what the issue is here; why would we not want to go out and hire the best teachers today?’ Our neighbors are hiring the best teachers, why are we not doing it?”

The vacancies created at Coronado include two resignations, three retirements,  and 14 unassigned. There were 54 interviews conducted of which, 34 were hired.

According to Dr. Birdwell, what makes the current TEA timelines so restrictive is the directive that vacancies must first be offered and filled by current staff — before the district can seek new recruits from outside the district.

“The rumor recently was I was going to remove other teachers to create jobs for the Coronado teachers and that’s not true. That’s a bold-faced lie,” Dr. Birdwell exclaimed. “There will be plenty of jobs, but as you see, it will take time to get there.”

There is a bit of a puzzle that goes on where district officials must match teacher certifications with job vacancies. Within the district currently there have been 45 resignations and retirements — nine are elementary; 10 are K-8; four are middle school; 10 are high school; and 12 are special education.

“So when you say no hiring outside the district until everyone in the district has a position, it raised a red flag,” Dr. Birdwell said.

“So we start placing teachers in jobs that we have, but we have some that are still unassigned because we don’t have a perfect match-up.”

Dr. Birdwell says by the time the district places unassigned teachers and waits for the transfer process and contract process to be completed, external interviews wouldn’t begin until May and June, whereas competing districts begin their hiring in January and February.

“If I go back to all these people who applied at Coronado and now in May, I see if they’re still available, but I gambled in March and April that they may have gotten a job somewhere else,” Dr. Birdwell said. “So that candidate pool may begin to dwindle and dwindle.”

Dr. Birdwell says she believes the district has created a system that is generating additional problems.

“I hear about other teachers already having contracts in other districts. As professionals, I can’t help feeling like this is a moment where you take a look at your district, and what is best for it,” Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg said.

“It is in the best interest, for my site, for my district and myself as an educational professional to figure out as fast as I can where I am, where I’ll be, and where I can’t be.”

President Perleberg said she finds it hard to believe a TEA, which she believes was created during a dysfunctional leadership, would be problem-free.

“This TEA was born in that dysfunction just like our past culture was, and our culture of leadership has been very weak,” she explained. “I look at this board continuing the work that we have been dedicated to ever since our leadership has come on board and driven the ship that was much needed.”

A view of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board room at Coronado High School. (file photo)

Teachers speak out

Mr. Assali’s teacher profile includes serving on the transfer committee; the budget committee; Blue Ribbon advisory committee; and the SEA executive board, with three of those years as the SEA president.

The Feb. 24 email Mr. Assali penned indicated SUSD unassigned teachers were to be placed before hiring outside candidates. This email, Dr. Birdwell said, implied Coronado High School teachers who had opted out of their assignment at Coronado would be placed back at Coronado because that’s where the openings are.

Due to the Coronado Success Initiative, an overhaul on the entire school, there are 27 vacancies at Coronado and 47 within the district at large. Mr. Assali said he believes some of the intent behind these changes to the TEA comes from the Coronado Success Initiative.

“When the Coronado initiative came out, months before when we tried to figure out what the shortage was going to be — in fact, people stood up here at the governing board meeting and shared a concern about transfers and staffing, and it was kind of disregarded,” Mr. Assali said.

“I’m sharing this because I’m trying to emphasize this point of why didn’t the conversation happen right then and there with teachers leaders that say ‘hey this might happen.’”

Mr. Assali says the TEA, which was created years ago with administration and staff who are no longer around, has worked successfully.

“If we’re concerned about filling spots with the best candidates as soon as possible, we should also be concerned about decisions we make, and how it impacts current teachers already in Scottsdale,” said Mr. Assali. “Meet-and-Confer did not hear about it, transfer committee did not hear about it, and no one really heard about it in any sort of detail until two days ago.”

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

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