Scottsdale teachers file claim against SUSD alleging breach of contract

A view of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board Room last April where numerous teachers voiced their concerns with changes. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

An association of Scottsdale teachers has filed a notice of claim against their employer — the Scottsdale Unified School District.

An admissible settlement offer dated Jan. 26 has been delivered to members of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board and Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell seeking to collect damages for unpaid work days and legal fees.

The notice of claim is for breach of contract stemming from the alteration of a mutually agreed upon 2017-18 teacher employment agreement, the teachers contend.

The notice was filed by Jarrett J. Haskovec of Phoenix-based law firm Lubin & Enoch on behalf of Scottsdale Education Association President Julie Cieniawski and Scottsdale Education Association Secretary Bonnie Bezon, records show.

The document addresses claims the teachers have against the district based on unilateral changes to the teacher employment agreement, individual teacher contracts and the district’s failure to meet and confer in good faith with the association to reach a new teaching agreement.

The TEA is a one-year contract from July 1-June 30 every year, between the district and teachers. Last summer the agreement expired on June 30, Ms. Cieniawski says.

Ms. Cieniawski confirmed on April 3 the document was presented to district officials prior to their regularly scheduled February meeting at Coronado High School.

Scottsdale Unified School District Public Information Officer Erin Helm also confirmed the notice of claim was received by the district, but declined to comment on pending legal matters.

In summary, the notice of claim, among other things, states the SUSD administration bargaining team missed one or more negotiation meetings, failed to identify TEA language concerns, deprived the SEA of its release time and banned the teacher organization from using several methods of communication at the district.

“It is clear from these and other facts that the administration never really sought or planned to reach an agreement with its teachers on a variety of important matters,” the notice claims.

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board is expected to discuss the notice of claim behind closed doors at an April 3 meeting.

Mohave District Annex is at 8500 E. Jackrabbit Road in Scottsdale. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Employment agreement lambasted

Ms. Cieniawski, a middle school teacher, says the notice of claim was for changing employment contracts after the district’s 1,300 certified staff signed their documents in the spring.

“Basically, it was for changing the employment contracts after the contracts were signed. The adding of the days, the destruction of the employment agreement — all were referenced on our contracts before we signed them,” she said in a phone interview.

The document outlines numerous claims that transpired since March 2017 when district administration began adopting and revising Governing Board policies inconsistent with the teacher employment agreement.

Julie Cieniawski

Employees within the Scottsdale Unified School District have the employment agreement, Governing Board policies and individual teaching agreements that pertain to their duties on campus.

For more than a year teachers, parents and students have stood before the Governing Board monthly to address issues they say are plaguing their classrooms.

In March 2017, Dr. Birdwell outlined reasoning and data as to why the TEA document needed immediate alterations if the district intended on retaining and recruiting the best 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 at the time.

“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 (2017) 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.”

According to Ms. Cieniawski and the members of the SEA, the exclusions of language last March were small but meaningful.

In November 2017, the group staged a parking-lot gathering to show solidarity in their efforts. Other meetings throughout the year have included uniform groups in matching colors, and holding up green cards — since vocal support or disagreement during meetings is frowned upon.

In March 2018, a year removed from the start of changes to the teaching agreement, Ms. Cieniawski and her colleagues presented a multi-paged narrative that outlined various decisions and actions in the past year.

The Scottsdale Unified School District is now working on an employee handbook that is said to address both classified and certified employees. The handbook is also to be discussed on April 3.

According to Ms. Helm, in an emailed response to questions, this year’s work for the employee handbook is complete, but the booklet is still growing.

“A committee of 36 teachers and administrators got a lot of work done this year,” she said in a March 29 emailed response to questions. “So far, the Teacher Employee Handbook has 33 pages, but it will expand next year with continued teacher participation and additional content.”

While certified and classified employee contracts may be distributed prior to handbook approval, staff is always protected by state and federal laws, as well as Governing Board policies, Ms. Helm noted, saying that there is a separate handbook for classified employees.

“The handbook puts into practice existing Governing Board policies (such as guidelines about ‘Leaves of Absence’) as well as outlines operation functions (such as staffing timelines),” she said.

Agreement purpose inside the classroom

The Scottsdale Education Association represents all teachers of the district on matters with respect to wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.

With more than 20,000 members, the Arizona Education Association is the largest professional organization in Arizona, its website states, noting that it has local affiliates with 200 Arizona school districts. AEA was formed more than a century ago, in 1892, when a group of Arizona educators banded together to protest the use of 14-year-old textbooks.

The Scottsdale Education Association’s teacher employment agreement is a decades-old living document, Ms. Cieniawski contends.

“Our TEA is really proof of mutual respect between employees in our situation, district management and the Governing Board,” Ms. Cieniawski said in a March phone interview.

“It truly provided the form and function of the employment environment. The last 50 years, this is considered to be a live document because every year employees from management and the employee voice would come together and go through all areas of the employment agreement and alter and change as needed.”

Ms. Cieniawski described situations where more than just salary was negotiated in the annual meet-and-confer process.

“Sometimes areas of improvement deal with finances — class size for example — that’s an issue not just for teachers, staff and administration, that’s an issue for our students and families as well.”

Without the teaching contract Ms. Cieniawski says she has been told teachers are being transferred from their home school, without ever requesting to move campuses.

“When I talk about this fair and respectful recognition, it’s so teachers could all have something they could count on to ensure best practices are put in place,” she said. “There’s teachers being told they are being placed on other campuses without their input. How much more can we take?”

Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board (Photo by Arianna Grainey)

Claims made

Ms. Cieniawski says she has not received her teaching contract for next year. She signed and returned her 2017-18 contract on March 29, 2017, documents show. Ms. Bezon accepted her 2017-18 contract on April 7, 2017.

The notice of claim states that their signed contract included:

“Teacher agrees to faithfully comply with Arizona Revised Statutes, State Department of Education Rules and Regulations, SUSD Governing Board Policies, Rules and Regulations; and the Teacher Employment Agreement, now in force or as they may be modified.”

Further, the notice of claim states that the document outlines: “in the event there is a discrepancy between the salary amount stated in this contract and the salary schedule contained in the Teacher’s Employment Agreement, the salary schedule will govern.”

The notice of claim and the SEA’s March narrative outlines unilateral actions and failure to meet-and-confer in good faith since March 2017, including approving a compensation package with little discussion with the employee group, adding days to the school calendar and board policy adoptions.

“In addition to these changes, the District administration has, by its own conduct, improperly altered the terms of the TEA and failed to meet and confer in good faith,” the notice of claim states.

On June 6, 2017, Dr. Birdwell sent out a “joint statement by SEA & SUSD leadership” via email, the notice of claim states, indicating the two groups had met days earlier to discuss communication and processes in moving forward. The two sides were said to “collaboratively review the TEA, Policy and Practice outcomes” during July and August, the email stated.

On June 14, 2017, the district administration missed the meeting because the administrators “mess[ed] up the calendars,” the notice states.

On July 3, 2017, Ian Hammond Stephan, SEA vice president, and another teacher requested a list of TEA language concerns. The next week, Dr. Birdwell responded with a list, indicating that “an agreement should reflect working conditions and salary/benefits,” the notice states.

On or about July 24, 2017, the SEA learned that it would not be allowed to participate in the new teacher orientation July 25-27. The notice of claim says on or about July 25, 2017, Dr. Birdwell “appears to have broken off any further meetings, citing SEA’s alleged lapse of status as an IRS-recognized 501(c) organization because of a paperwork issue.”

The notice says that Dr. Birdwell incorrectly stated this meant the SEA “does not have legal status.”

On July 31, 2017, Dr. Birdwell announced the district’s intention of creating a Governing Board Policy Manual for all employees.

On Aug. 1, 2017, Dr. Birdwell informed all district employees via email that the SEA would no longer be able to use SUSD email, mailboxes, or a bulletin board to distribute information.

Arizona Education Association General Counsel Samantha Blevins contacted the district concerning this ban and related issues, explaining the district ban represented unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, among other things.

On or about Aug. 1, 2017, Ms. Cieniawski was informed she would no longer have release time for the SEA president, even though her contract provided for it, and the SEA paid for costs related to release time.

“This means that, in addition to teaching full-time at the District, the SEA President had to do her best to attend meetings and otherwise represent the interest of several hundred teachers at the District during whatever spare time she could find,” the notice of claim states.

The document also states that Ms. Cieniawski was reassigned by the district to a full-time teaching position. Then, at the end of August, she was reassigned back to her original campus. At the beginning of November, Ms. Cieniawski was changed from a teacher to an instructional coach for half of her time at the district.

Because she is no longer in the classroom, she believes she is therefore ineligible for Prop. 301 money or the 1.06 percent salary increase for her time in this role, the notice states.

“Accordingly, Ms. Cieniawski will suffer reduced compensation as this school year concludes and Prop. 301 money is paid,” the notice states. “She brought the attention to Dr. Sitton, who suggested it was merely a ‘coding’ issue and that the gifted department had made the change.”

On Nov. 13, 2017, Ms. Cieniawski suggested the district and its teachers agree to mediate their disputes, and work on recommendations and refinements to the current TEA.

In a response email the same day, Dr. Birdwell stated: “you requested mediation to reinstate the SEA and the TEA. We have reinstated the SEA and no[,] the TEA is not coming back,” according to the notice of claim.

On Nov. 21, 2017, SUSD General Counsel Michelle Marshall emailed Ms. Cieniawski stating: “It is our understanding that what the SEA would like to mediate is the question of whether to engage in meet and confer and whether to revive the expired TEA. The Board has made it abundantly clear that there is no interest in negotiating the TEA.”

The view of the March 20 Governing Board meeting at Coronado High School. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Damages sought

The notice claims a breach of contract, illustrating “ordinary principals of contract law apply” to contracts with a school district where the district has authority to enter into such contracts.

Citing court case Carlson v. School Dist. No. 6 of Maricopa County, “both parties are bound by the terms of their contracts and neither can unilaterally disregard the same with impunity,” the notice states.

“The Board’s unilateral decision to suspend portions of the TEA related to professional staff assignments, transfers, and department chair assignments on March 16, 2017, falls into the category of a mid-contract change with an immediate impact,” the notice states.

“Because the district failed to follow the meet-and-confer procedure and the SEA did not agree to the changes, the District’s imposition of these changes represents a breach of the TEA.”

The notice of claim states that Ms. Cieniawski will settle her claims against the district for $15,532.75; while Ms. Bezon will settle her claims for $822.78.

Ms. Cieniawski’s amount was reached by taking the compensation she should have received for additional days of work, $1,032.75, and adding to her attorney’s fees to-date, estimated to be $14,500.

Ms. Bezon’s amount was reached by taking the compensation she should have received for the additional days of work.

The two Scottsdale teachers intend to seek to recover unpaid compensation due to other similarly situated teachers in the district who also worked the additional calendar days without compensation if litigation ensues, the notice states.

Since the notice of claim was issued to the school district, Dr. Birdwell has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an ongoing Arizona Attorney General’s investigation. In March the Governing Board announced its intent to sever ties with Dr. Birdwell. 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.

A special meeting was held Tuesday, March 20 two hours prior to the start of the Governing Board’s regular meeting, held at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave., for discussion and action on both Dr. Birdwell and former SUSD Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell.

The Governing Board voted unanimously that the statement of charges presented that evening — if proven to be true — constitute cause for Dr. Birdwell’s dismissal. The superintendent will be dismissed from employment at the end of 15 calendar days after she is issued with a notice, unless she requests a hearing.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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