Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board moves to dismiss superintendent

Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell’s future with the district was voted on March 20. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board has moved to dismiss its superintendent and former chief operations officer following an internal investigation that claims the two may have violated a number district and state policies.

Dr. Denise Birdwell has held the post of Scottsdale Unified School District superintendent for just about two years. 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 entered into executive session for 2.5 hours before voting on the matter.

Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg read aloud a statement that said the Governing Board was asked to determine if allegations against Mr. Hartwell and Dr. Birdwell, if proven, could be cause for dismissal.

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

“We only decide today whether the district would have cause to dismiss the superintendent if the allegations are proven,” she said in her formal statement. “The Governing Board is also being asked to provide the superintendent with notice of its intent to dismiss her from employment if the Governing Board makes the determination that her alleged conduct would be cause for dismissal.”

The Governing Board voted unanimously that the statement of charges — 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.

Governing Board member Kim Hartmann moved that a hearing officer be selected if a hearing is requested.

The Governing Board president will also provide Dr. Birdwell notice of her continuation of paid administrative leave of absence with pay and benefits, pending the outcome of the dismissal proceeding or other resolution of the matter.

Mr. Hartwell will be dismissed from employment at the end of 10 calendar days once he is issued a notice, unless he, too, requests a hearing. He will also remain on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the dismissal proceeding.

There is no severance pay in this scenario, Ms. Helm confirmed.

Scottsdale Unified School District General Counsel Michelle Marshall and Susan Segal of Gust Rosenfeld — a Phoenix-based law office — reported on two internal reviews meant to evaluate alleged financial misgivings to the Governing Board at its December and January meetings.

The Arizona Attorney General’s office filed a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court Feb. 22, requesting ongoing construction at Hohokam Elementary School and Cheyenne Traditional School be suspended.

The court filing came on the heels of a months-long investigation into allegations of wrongdoing on behalf of district officials.

A statement of charges was presented by Acting Superintendent Dr. Amy Fuller against Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell at the March 20 board meeting.

Acting Superintendent Dr. Amy Fuller. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The statement of charges obtained by the Independent outlines allegations of 14 broken Governing Board policies, violation of Arizona code and a narrative of allegations including Dr. Birdwell, former Hunt & Caraway Architects employee Brian Robichaux, and Mr. Hartwell.

The SUSD document suggests Dr. Birdwell was paid by Hunt & Caraway Architects, a firm hired by the district to design elementary schools after the passing of a voter-approved $229 million bond in November 2016.

Hunt & Caraway Architects and its former president, Mr. Robichaux, were among the defendants listed on the Attorney General’s civil lawsuit against the Scottsdale Unified School District.

Violations in the district’s statement of charges include allegations of violating district policies that pertain to staff ethics, conduct, conflict of interest, financial accounting and procurement procedures.

The alleged Arizona Administrative Code violations include:

  • All school districts shall implement the current version of the Uniform System of Financial Records, as prescribed by the Auditor General.
  • For purchases of between $10,000 and $50,000 the district must follow the guidelines prescribed by the Auditor General in the Uniform System of Financial Records.
  • No project or purchase may be divided or sequenced into separate projects or purchases in order to avoid the limits prescribed in Articles 10 and 11.

Dr. Fuller will be the one to sign the statements, SUSD Public Information Officer Erin Helm noted in a March 20 email statement to the Independent.

A statement of charges was also provided on Mr. Hartwell. Both senior administrators were put on paid administrative leave earlier this year.

 

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

Statement of charges overview

The Scottsdale Unified School District statement of charges against Dr. Birdwell describes the document as factual allegations supporting charges Dr. Birdwell engaged in objectionable conduct and actions violating district policy, among other things.

According to Dr. Fuller, these are the charges the district alleges:

  • Dr. Birdwell failed to disclose a substantial personal interest related to Hunt & Caraway Architects at the time she recommended and later approved purchase orders for the district to hire the firm;
  • At no time did Dr. Birdwell notify formally or informally the Governing Board, general counsel or anyone representing the district that she was previously employed by, performing services for or otherwise being paid by Hunt & Caraway;
  • The district learned of checks signed by Brian Robichaux reflecting payment from Hunt & Caraway to Dr. Birdwell in significant amounts during 2015;
  • During the time that Dr. Birdwell was negotiating her employment with the district, Hunt & Caraway issued a check to her for $15,000, dated Jan. 4, 2016, signed by Mr. Robichaux; the check was deposited on Jan. 15, 2016;
  • Hunt & Caraway issued payment to “Individual C” dated April 1, 2016, signed by Mr. Robichaux for $15,000; and
  • The check was deposited into a joint account held by Dr. Birdwell and “Individual C.”

Secondly, the document alleges Dr. Birdwell was aware the sister of former Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith was employed by Professional Group Public Consulting. Also known as PGPC, the consulting firm that had been hired by the district.

Although Ms. Smith signed conflict of interest forms when she joined SUSD, she failed to fully disclose her own and her sister’s relationship to the company, and did not refrain from district involvement with PGPC, Ms. Segal said in January.

Ms. Smith resigned on Jan. 26. She had been put on administrative leave two days prior pending the ongoing investigation.

“(The) superintendent was responsible for ensuring district conflict-of-interest policies were followed, and she either knowingly permitted the payments to PGPC despite the conflict or was neglectful in failing to identify the conflict,” the SUSD statement of charges state.

Ms. Smith was responsible for approving purchase orders that resulted in SUSD paying over $40,000 to PGPC, the document states.

Next, the document states, the superintendent, allegedly, was instrumental in the hiring of Mr. Hartwell, whom is the brother of “Individual C,” who she shares a bank account with. The superintendent at no time notified the Governing Board, general counsel or anyone representing the district that they were acquaintances.

Louis Hartwell

“The evidence also supports a finding that her decision to hire HCA almost immediately after she was hired by the district was based on her personal relationship with (Mr.) Robichaux,” the document states.

After he was hired, Mr. Hartwell was promoted on or about May 8, 2017. When he was promoted to chief business and operations officer, the requirements for that position require the individual to have an MBA degree, the document states.

“However, Mr. Hartwell did not (and does not) even have a bachelor’s degree,” the statement of charges reads.

Additionally, the superintendent allowed the Governing Board to believe Mr. Hartwell’s salary for the 2017-18 fiscal year was not changed from fiscal year 2016-17, the document states.

“However, from the time the Governing Board approved Mr. Hartwell’s initial employment to the time he was issued his 2017-2018 administrator contract, Mr. Hartwell’s salary was increased by $20,000.”

The statement of charges by Scottsdale Schools also describes Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell giving orders to “Employee A” to access district email archives “on several occasions to search for emails to/from and/or between Governing Board members, other district employees and members of the public during the time when members of the public were bringing their concerns regarding superintendent and the former chief financial officer to the board’s attention.”

The document states, through Mr. Hartwell, the superintendent ordered the employee not to disclose his searches to any other district employee.

“Employee was ordered to download batches of emails to an external drive or drivers to avoid being detected through the entry logs of the archive system,” the document states.

The district summary of charges also states Dr. Birdwell:

  • Paid for her personal counsel, Kraig Marton at Jaburg Wilk with district funds; and
  • Did not properly oversee the financial-control policies of the district.

Dr. Birdwell was placed on paid administrative leave Feb. 21 following a public rally in February.

Mr. Hartwell submitted his resignation in February, effective June 30, but has now been placed on administrative leave as well, according to SUSD officials.

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.

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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