The Independent interview: Scottsdale activist Mike Norton

Mike Norton

Over the last few weeks while conducting interviews with local political activists we encountered enormous responses from a few of our sources that we couldn’t fit for print.

Instead of leaving those comments on the cutting room floor, the Scottsdale Independent offers a questions-and-answer segment with Scottsdale resident and political activist Mike Norton to better understand his perspective on how local politics is shifting.

In its entirety, this is what he had to say:

•Where did this desire to be a local activist come from?

I was reluctantly drafted to serve on the 2012-13 Academic Year Budget Committee for SUSD. I had never been politically active. My kids had attended and were attending Copper Ridge. The Principal urged me to serve after talking with a few of the teachers who knew my family.

Academic year 2012-13 was the year SUSD first considered cutting K-5 school weeks, eliminating nurses and specials, and increasing class size. Many of us believed that plan was foolish at best and disastrous at worst. Dave Peterson, however, believed that voters needed to be given “a dose of their own medicine” so they were “taught a lesson” about refusing M&O override ballots.

After working with six to eight active and smart people, we were able to convince the district not to cut those critical functions but instead to shift other budgeted funds back to the classroom. I was proud our team accomplished that change in attitude. I met some truly brilliant and motivated district staff and teachers.

I also was stunned to learn that I was the only non-SUSD employee on that committee. I assumed that there were more parents involved and was the butt of a lot of jokes when I learned that the woman I’d been sitting next to through many of the meetings wasn’t another mom/dad like me, but was instead the Governing Board President, Pam Kirby.

Once I got involved in the budget that year, I found that I had a hard time dropping the issue and walking away. One of the functions I played was being able to speak out during the committee meetings without the risk of losing my job. As the only non-SUSD committee member one person after another came forward with proof of budget waste asking me to tell the story they couldn’t tell without fear. I took on that role. It’s hard to give it up.

Six of us met off-site throughout that year. We became the original editors of Respect Our Scottsdale students.

Our purpose from day one was to put education issues ahead of personalities while providing a safehaven for those who wanted to speak out to be able to do so without fear of retribution. The other five ROSS editors were the heroes of that effort. Certainly not me. I remain in awe of their commitments to this day.

• What drove you to help developing that avenue for local residents and why did you feel it was important to be anonymous?

Both teachers and parents are often reticent to criticize the district or call out its wrongdoings. The fear that a job will be at stake or that a child will be treated poorly frighten a lot of people in to silence. We understood that fear. We also wanted to take the personalities out of the debate. No one wanted the effort to be focused on a person. We wanted the effort to be focused on the issues — both positive and negative.

Some of our original editors used their own names. Some did not. Anonymity certainly made it a challenge to verify the credibility of the reports sent to us, but over time we worked that out by sticking to a discipline of verifying the reports before we post.

Most of the time that meant documents. If we had email, district records, photos, or tangible records to back up a story, we grew comfortable with relying on the documents to tell the story. If you go back through most of our posts, you’ll find documents attached to the post. A document doesn’t need to be attached to a name or a person to tell the story. The document tells the story itself.

•Do you think it is important for folks to be able to speak out against what they feel is unjust free from the repercussions that could materialize if they signed a name to their opinion or social media post?

No one at NoDDC ever hid from public attention. We stood in meetings to speak. We announced that we founded NoDDC. We are the registered officers of that nonprofit. We are the named parties in the lawsuit against the city of Scottsdale seeking to enforce our Charter granted voting rights regarding the Preserve.

Using NoDDC as a profile for posts is designed solely to focus on the issues instead of the personalities. This isn’t a grudge match between Jason Alexander and Linda Milhaven. This is about 220,000 citizens, 33,000 acres of Preserve and our desire to protect that Preserve. By not making it a personal battle, a lot more people buy in. They know we have no personal agendas. We don’t want contracts with the city. We don’t plan to run for public office. We just want voter rights respected and the Preserve protected.

ROSS has both issues going on. The majority of stories and documents come from people who truly cannot afford to be named publicly. By sticking to our promise never to name a source, over the last four years the community has learned to trust ROSS to truly protect them as they share information. That trust turned ROSS in to the whistleblower for the community. I’m proud that the community has confidence to trust us and share the information they have.

The promise to protect identities has helped create a powerful voice for change and a respected source of news breaking stories. We now do a lot of work in cooperation with traditional media. We share our research. We gladly watch others run the stories.

•I allow Fanpages to post at Scottsdale Independent because I believe in Free Speech and that a good democracy is typically a messy one, but I have received criticism for allowing it. How do you perceive this issue of social media commentary?

Like ROSS, as S.I.’s editor you’re sometimes refereeing a social media version of a bar room brawl. At some point the profanity or vindictive personal assaults have to be cut off. Allowing the brawl to go unchecked scares away people who want to be involved in civil dialogue and debate but fear being trampled by trolls.

There are only rare exceptions to the rule that we allow anyone to post. Everyone starts out with the right to post on ROSS. We don’t filter. But a few have lost that right. Of the tens of thousands of people who view our page weekly, the handful of people who were blocked were either excessively profane, openly and offensively bigoted, or resorted to some vicious attacks on others participating in the discussions.

We like to say that we are often stone cold nuts — and that we call on the community to prove us to be nuts through open and aggressive debate. We mean that. Because we sometimes are stone cold nuts and we’re grownup enough to be prepared for that possibility. So we are happy to admit it we’re nuts when we are. We’re ready to change our minds. We hope our readers have the same approach.

•Do you see any parallels between the NoDDC movement and the activist-exposed malfeasance at Scottsdale Schools?

There are a couple of parallels, but also some sharp distinctions.

The Desert Discovery Center/Edge is an enormous waste of funds misappropriated for a horrible purpose. There were unethical dealings going on including the well camouflaged RFQ that DDCSI helped prepare in anticipation of getting the contract handed to them as the sole bidder.

The legal shenanigans to avoid the Charter guaranteed right to vote are also offensive on all levels. The City Attorney’s duty is to uphold, protect and enforce the U.S and Arizona Constitution and the Charter of our city to their fullest and greatest extent. Not to help a few chosen council members subvert the Charter for a pet project. Those things bug me.
The players were bending the rules and tilting the table for their own benefit. That’s wrong.

And, when coupled with cheating on Charter voting rights it’s horribly wrong. SUSD’s corruption, however, sets a whole new standard for ugliness.

Except for the incredible effort of a few dozen stalwart community members, our school district was set up to be plundered for nefarious purposes. The plundering has been slowed and will be stopped, but it took the year long efforts of at least 30 and probably more like 40 people from all over the district, the very solid legal work of Susan Segal of Gust Rosenfeld, who I have gained great respect for as I watched her work, and the intervention of the Attorney General’s Office.

Most troubling was the apparent complicity of members of the Governing Board. Incontrovertible facts and documents were presented to them throughout the 2nd Quarter of 2017. Those same documents and facts have led to the Attorney General suing the District and the resignations and terminations of top leadership for corrupt activity.

Instead of responding to the evidence of corruption by investigating it thoroughly, at least three of the board members instead fought to stop the investigations and fought to discredit the many who came forward with proof of corruption. When a board member is faced with evidence of corruption the only acceptable response is for them to grab the evidence and charge ahead to find out what is going on. They had that choice — and instead chose to defend the corrupt parties and attack the messengers. I hope they step down soon.

If they choose to run for office again in November, the election will be brutal, ugly, and damaging to the community and our schools. This won’t be a “normal board election” by any stretch of the imagination. And then — the real tragedy — the Birdwell cartel — much of which is still in SUSD office — has decimated our principals and teachers. Some were the targets of some wickedly malicious trumped up disciplinary actions. That kind of evil goes deep to the core. That kind of evil won’t be gone until the last of the Birdwell cartel are gone — something that will take at least another year since our board raced to hand them renewal contracts.

•Was the anonymity essential for NoDDC and ROSS to be effective?

NoDDC had no reason for anonymity other than focusing on issues instead of people. It could have gone either way and NoDDC really doesn’t even feign anonymity. For ROSS it was an integral reason for success. As Denise Birdwell has proven, a teacher who speaks out faces harsh punishment — often inappropriate and often faked. The number of teachers and principals Birdwell targeted for false disciplinary actions is legendary.

•Do you like or decry the “mad dog” moniker?

I rarely back down from a movement I believe in. v,m. e I am tenacious. Personal attacks bounce off me. When someone chooses to stand up and demand change, you have to be ready to accept the attacks of the lunatic fringe (including trolls) as well as those who are smarter than I am and dedicated to the opposite cause.

As Linda Milhaven declared, there are “mean and nasty” people on the other side. And I’m mean and nasty if I have to be, so in part, she’s right. But she also called us “liars and character assassins.” Over time, documents will prove who lied. I’ll let the community decide for itself. And those whose character was impugned brought that pain on themselves.

Denise Birdwell and Pam Kirby jumped on the name calling bandwagon like Milhaven. She called many of us liars and document thieves (as if we can steal public records). We have already proven who lied. And we’re rapidly moving ahead to prove who stole.
As for the “mad dog” label I’m not fond of it. But, I deserve that some times. Early in my career, I was a plaintiff’s trial lawyer. I can adapt to a role if I need to move the purpose ahead. I prefer civil dialogue, but if we’re blown off and ignored, we turn up the volume until people listen.

•Despite what others say about you, are you a proponent of positive change at Scottsdale Schools and at City Hall?

I believe deeply in a few fundamental principles: the Charter is the Charter. Uphold it to its fullest and highest levels.

Great leaders have impeccable integrity, honesty, intelligence, and professional backgrounds. As long as our leaders have those characteristics, I can and will support them regardless of their political affiliation. And, I will respect their decisions when we disagree.

As for our schools, my kids will attend Scottsdale public schools until 2024. My kids started attending Scottsdale schools in 1994. During an extremely difficult period that I was a single dad with three kids at home, Copper Ridge, a counselor, and some teachers went way beyond all the normal expectations and helped my kids and me when we really needed help. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to them and to SUSD.

Many question my tactics — that’s fine. I hope someone always questions my tactics. It keeps me on track.

You should never question my purpose. I’m in this for SUSD and in particular I love our teachers. The 1,250 teachers in Scottsdale’s public schools are the greatest asset in our community. They’re shaping the future leaders of our city.

I once had the privilege to listen to John Kriekard for a couple of hours. He’s been gone from SUSD for a long time, but he’s still a legendary leader for our teachers who knew him. He attributed his success to something simple. He hired the best principals he could find, let them hire the best Teachers they could find, then told them to go do what they know how to do best and he would support them. He respected them — they respected him — they all respected their duty to the students — and when parents bought in, magical stuff happened.

What a unique concept. I hope our district embraces that concept again soon.

Our girls’ school, Cheyenne Traditional School, is a great example of the Kriekard theory of school buy-in. We have been blessed with one of the greatest leaders I’ve met in my long career. I’ve been around military leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and school leaders. She is a uniquely brilliant, compassionate, and strong leader who inspires confidence while motivating to the highest levels.

Grace Stombres would be a success at anything she ever chose to do. We also have a nucleus of the founding Teachers and Staff still with us. Holly Ditallo is a magnificent human being. Her commitment to Cheyenne since its founding should be the subject of a movie script.

The power of Cheyenne started with their efforts but it multiplies through the community buy-in. About 1,000 kids, 45 Teachers, 13 staff including site leaders, and a couple thousand parents have maintained the original legacy of CTS and built on it. The kids coming out of a CTS 8th grade graduation are stunningly mature, confident, and motivated. They learn all they can learn in their 9 years at CTS and most importantly, they learn how to learn and they learn to love to learn.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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