Slowly, but surely: A parent’s guide to moving on from Scottsdale Schools’ transgressions

Construction is in full swing at Pima Traditional School this summer, with new buildings set to open in time for the 2018-19 school year. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Like a butterfly spreading its wings for the first time, the Scottsdale Unified School District is attempting to muster its energy, courage and strength to emerge anew as it heads toward a new beginning.

While children attend summer camps, teenagers go off to their first jobs and teachers delve in to much-deserved time off, Scottsdale Schools’ officials are seeking to move forward after a tumultuous school year.

The district’s administration team dismissed its superintendent, chief financial officer, chief business and operations officer, and longtime personnel director. Meanwhile the same top officials were embroiled in a public scandal surrounding the architect hired to rebuild several elementary schools.

In all, Scottsdale Schools saw the departure of employees within the administration and classroom levels due to the build-up and fallout over the events.

During that same time, however, Saguaro High School made history winning its fifth consecutive state championship title, Coronado High School claimed its first Flinn Scholar, $69.8 million in scholarships was received by the class of 2017 and many more accolades were earned.

Acting Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard and Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board members look to continue education excellence as students return to school on Aug. 7.

Dr. John Kriekard (photo by SUSD)

“We are moving forward in a way that will be careful, thorough and transparent,” Dr. Kriekard said.

“Our emphasis, and my personal emphasis throughout my career, has always been on student achievement. Decisions are made based on what’s best for student learning. That will continue to be a heavy emphasis; there’s no other way for me to run a school or school district than to stress the importance of instruction and academic achievement. It’s all about teaching and learning.”

With the distractions of last year’s troubles behind them, the district is able to focus on the future. Discussions for a superintendent search and the bond projects are to resume this fall, officials say.

“Important dialogue around enrollment trends and program development were definitely derailed as we worked through the procurement issues of this past year,” Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg said.

“In August, the Governing Board will analyze with staff all bond expenditures and current project status so immediate next steps may be determined and informed discussions of SUSD’s future can begin.”

A view of Hopi Elementary School during rebuild. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

A lot can happen in one year

Nearly one year ago, rumblings within Hopi Elementary School revealed parental dismay of its rebuild, which was the first school chosen to be reconstructed following a successful $229 million bond in the November 2016 election. A petition emerged that garnered over 1,000 signatures within hours.

SUSD officials found themselves treading through investigations, internal reviews, staff changes and periods of uncertainty for the majority of the school year, while legacy systems came crumbling down in district departments.

An Arizona Attorney General Investigation began percolating, and was announced in November 2017.

Issues were made public quickly. At Governing Board meetings, teachers, parents and community members voiced their concern over decisions made, the speed at which decisions were made and most important: claiming conflicts of interest and nepotism allegedly found at the superintendent’s office.

The community dug in as hoards of emails, information and allegations began surfacing on social media sites, blogs and news media.

Three candidates for two open seats at the upcoming school board election emerged, they say, due to community outcries.

The five elected Governing Board members largely stayed mum on issues, allowing people to voice concern for several months. Some yelled, some cried and others spoke eloquently as SUSD meeting after meeting went by with very little explanation said about issues everyone seemed to be talking about.

“Once concerns started to bubble up from community members, the board was required to follow specific Arizona state statutes to resolve them,” Governing Board member Sandy Kravetz said.

Sandy Kravetz (photo by Josh Martinez)

“The process takes more time than one finds in the private sector, which understandably led to frustration and outcries from our constituents.”

Between December 2017 to April 2018, Governing Board members took part in at least 14 private discussions with their legal representatives.

Early mornings and afternoons oftentimes stretched into late-night hours as elected leaders and a handful of the most crucial district officials would discuss the issues plaguing SUSD behind closed doors.

The regular faces attending district meetings dwindled as contract severance packages were discussed and executed for alleged wrongdoings by four administrators.

Opponents of then-superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell and her team lined the streets in front of Coronado High School in protest on Feb. 13 of this year, during which time signs calling for school board member resignations began sprouting in front yards.

On Thursday, Feb. 22, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office filed a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior court against the Scottsdale Unified School District, requesting to halt ongoing construction at Hohokam Elementary School and Cheyenne Traditional School.

The court filing stems from procurement violations that occurred in connection with SUSD’s bid process for construction projects specifically at Hohokam Elementary and Cheyenne Traditional schools, the document states.

The Attorney General’s Office would later indict the district chief financial officer on 11 felony charges.

On July 20, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office confirmed ongoing criminal and civil investigations regarding Hunt & Caraway Architects and former Hunt & Caraway principal, Brian Robichaux. The Governing Board discussed a settlement for the case on July 26, but an agreement was not reached at the time.

Scottsdale Unified School District’s Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell, was placed on temporary paid administrative leave the day prior to the Attorney General lawsuit.

What had been displayed as a friendly relationship between the six women leading Scottsdale Schools, evolved in to what appeared like an uncomfortable, quiet and cold temperament toward the end.

On the night that Dr. Birdwell’s contract was terminated, Governing Board Vice President Kim Hartmann and President Barbara Perleberg gave voice to the matter from a personal standpoint before casting their official votes. Ms. Hartmann illustrated the predicament as distasteful, saying she felt personally betrayed and misled.

Ms. Perleberg described her personal emotions and feelings of disappointment as complex.

Governing Board incumbents Pam Kirby and Kim Hartmann have not filed for re-election this fall. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The ‘perfect storm’

Looking back, one Governing Board member says from her perspective, SUSD did its best to hire the right people.

“We did our best to hire the best people in roles,” Governing Board Vice President Kim Hartmann said of what went wrong at SUSD.

“We did our due diligence and hired individuals that came highly recommended by organizations such as [the Arizona School Board Association]. Some traits are difficult for which to review.”

It appears a series of events occurring in early 2016 resulted in many Scottsdale Unified School District parents and community members questioning the ethics of their district leaders.

“I think we experienced the repercussions of a ‘perfect storm’ of lax procedures and policies in human resources and procurement departments that had been neglected for several years,” Ms. Kravetz said.

“Additionally, the organization that SUSD hired to identify superintendent candidates did not conduct as thorough a background check as we will require in the future.”

Ms. Perleberg also defined last year as a storm.

“The storm in SUSD that erupted this past year did not develop overnight,” she said.

Barbara Perleberg (Photo by Arianna Grainey)

“Years of internal and external pressures building up brought us to this place, and I speak with many stakeholders who understand the importance of the culture shifts and academic work undertaken on our campuses these past two years. Our goal is to emerge better and stronger, and we will.”

Questions raised by the community include the procurement process in which the school district hires outside vendors, and, primarily, what some concerned community members feel was a questionable hiring process for one architect.

“Our district has been burned several times by entrusting our decisions to the ‘expertise’ of outside purchasing cooperatives or professional associations, which, purportedly, expedite procurement procedures and help develop best human resource practices for school districts,” Ms. Kravetz points out.

She says SUSD will now rely on recent hires such as Director of Procurement Eva Dino, and Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Dr. Jed Bowman, “to avoid the pitfalls of last year.”

“All of the administrators hired by Dr. Kriekard are aware of the primacy of our core purpose,” Ms. Kravetz said, noting Dr. Bowman’s qualifications of having a doctorate in education and human resources studies.

“This is the first time in recent memory that SUSD will have a human resources leader who has actually studied this field and will implement consistent, professional employment practices.”

Scottsdale Schools parent Shanda Carrithers says the issues at the school board last year were a bit of a distraction.

“The issues with the SUSD school board were a bit of a distraction and made the Scottsdale school district look back, and that was unfortunate because we have some amazing schools, teachers and faculty,” Ms. Carrithers said.

“The district needs to take accountability for the poor choices and decisions they’ve made in the past and move forward, rebuild trust and show teachers, students and parents that they’re a priority, they’re supported and their voices are heard.”

Over the summer, workers prepare Pima Elementary School and Hopi Elementary School for students and teachers to return, as both campuses underwent a full rebuild. The school projects are two of several originally earmarked to be paid for by a successful $229 million bond in November 2016. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Future safeguards

As collectively the Scottsdale Unified School District picks up and brushes itself off, officials are seeking to put in place safeguards to ensure the multitude of issues incurred last year aren’t repeated.

Governing Board policy discussions recently include:

  • Looking at who the district’s general counsel reports to;
  • Implementing formal conflict of interest procedures;
  • Considering an internal auditor position; and
  • Canceling Hohokam Elementary School’s rebuild and the Central Kitchen project for the time being.

Moreover, Arizona lawmakers last May passed a $10.4 billion budget, which included changes to how public schools will be allowed to hire builders for large construction projects.

Regulations will now carry harsh penalties for malfeasance that occurs during the selection process, published news reports point out.

“The district’s work to strengthen our organization and re-establish trust in our community has just begun,” Ms. Perleberg said.

“The fresh lens of new administration, outside legal counsel, focused audits, and policy review will bring the improvements in regulations and procedures necessary for a stronger SUSD. While procurement and conflicts of interest are in the forefront of discussions currently, practices in Human Resources and Finance are being examined and recommendations are expected in early fall.”

Policy changes are happening during Governing Board meetings, but administrative roles are remaining the same, Ms. Hartmann points out.

“Other than a couple of policy changes and/or clarifications and improved back-office procurement processes, the roles have largely stayed the same,” she said.

“The Interim Superintendent and new CFO are quality individuals and professionals. As a board member, I will support them.”

The community, as Ms. Hartmann points out, has proven itself to be a diverse, proactive and activist community at times.

“Responsive and humble are two very important traits leaders in the SUSD community need to embody,” she said.

A view of Pima Traditional School during summer rebuild. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Internal reorganization

Two of the five seats on the SUSD Governing Board will be up for election at the Tuesday, Nov. 6 election: Pam Kirby and Ms. Hartmann’s seats to be exact.

Three community members have announced their candidacy:

  • Mike Peabody – a Hohokam Elementary School parent
  • Patty Beckman – a Mohave Middle School parent
  • Jann-Michael Greenburg – a 2012 Arcadia High School graduate.

At the time of publication, Ms. Hartmann did not respond to questions regarding re-election aspirations, while Ms. Kirby penned a response to questions about her end on the school board, citing goals to end “Dark Money.”

The superintendent’s search is expected to resume this fall. The Governing Board discussed last spring what qualities to seek and what method would be best to pursue the right person to lead Scottsdale.

Dr. Kriekard was brought in for 123 days; his contract is up in September. The plan the Governing Board intends is to hire an interim superintendent for one year while conducting a national search for a permanent superintendent to start the 2019-20 school year.

Additionally, SUSD cabinet members will be going through some thinning out, Dr. Kriekard says. The SUSD website says “staff updates pending” at the time of publication.

“My vision is that at the senior leadership level, assistant superintendents and I, working with the board will clean up processes and procedures that need to be taken care of,” he explained. “We will be reviewing departments that have had issues in the past to make sure those departments are now operating smoothly.”

In addition to the cabinet being re-organized, there are five director positions open, according to the SUSD website.

Dr. Kriekard points out that new leaders he’s hired all have strong academic backgrounds. This includes new CFO Mr. Gadd, and a bond consultant named Dr. Skip Brown.

“He has agreed to come in on a short-term basis and look at our plan,” Dr. Kriekard explained of Dr. Brown.

A construction work is pictured at Pima Elementary School over the summer. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

“Recommend any updates to the plan, including an update to criteria used to select which schools would next be candidates for a rebuild. We expect to have a report from him in early September.”

When the $229 million bond was passed by SUSD voters, eight elementary schools were earmarked to be rebuilt. The two schools approved, Hopi Elementary and Pima Traditional schools are nearing completion as school begins.

“We are utilizing the summer to reassess our expenditures to date and update the SUSD school prioritization and readiness plan, as well as, secure forecasting and enrollment data,” Ms. Hartmann says of the bond projects. “We will be ready in the fall to continue our build process and decision-making.”

Ms. Kravetz expects to discuss the next phase of elementary rebuilds in the first quarter of the new school year.

“This extra time enables the Governing Board to evaluate its rebuild priorities, based upon program popularity and areas of projected student population growth,” she said.

Ms. Carrithers is looking forward to new beginnings with the new school year.

“It was really disappointing to see how the SUSD teachers were treated and undervalued by the administration, and admin has a lot of work to do to change the culture,” she said.

“I am looking forward to a fresh start for the SUSD administration to start making our teachers and students feel valued. I’m hopeful the momentum will continue with the ballot and hopefully have happy teachers and students. Also hopeful for a better awareness that leads to more funding showing our students that education is a priority in the state of Arizona.”

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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