Travails of Scottsdale Schools superintendent search reveal underlying hurdles

The Scottsdale Unified School District headquarters is at 7575 E. Main Street in Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The national application process to be the next superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified School District have been closed, as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27.

And, quite resoundingly, parents, teachers and community members have expressed that they want someone who is trustworthy, a strong leader, a good communicator and able to fix and heal their broken school district.

On Nov. 19, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board met with its hired national search firm, McPherson Jacobson, to receive feedback from five October community meetings where stakeholders were encouraged to define the positive and negative aspects of the district, as well as express what they wanted in their next superintendent.

The report included 70 pages worth of comments.

The five meetings collected comments from students, classified staff, certified staff, administrators, parents and community members, the report noted, and over 250 individuals gave input.

Dr. Thomas Jacobson, and consultants and current superintendents, Dr. Steve Joel and Dr. Mary Kamerzell, presented the findings and information to the Governing Board.

Additionally, the salary range for which Scottsdale’s superintendents have historically been paid, compared to the state and national average was discussed.

While there were myriad good qualities about both SUSD and the city of Scottsdale listed, the challenges a new superintendent would face were paramount.

“The issues, that if they could talk to the new superintendent — lack of trust — lack of trust from the community to the board and then also lack of trust to the district office, were two big issues that kept coming up,” Dr. Jacobson explained.

“Inequity in compensation, morale is perceived as low, financial management is a question, role of charter schools in your community is an issue, communication gap within the district. The one that I picked up on here, is the superintendent needs to know the district’s craving stability and longevity.”

Dr. Joel, who says he’s been the one on the phone most with potential candidates, hasn’t been shy about the work to be done in Scottsdale, he explained.

“What I’ve been telling candidates is that there’s work here, and it isn’t going to be an easy road to ho,” he said. “There’s probably some baggage to be addressed.”

The good news, Dr. Joel said, is that there are a lot of people researching the district, and it’s considered an appealing location. During the mid-November meeting, Dr. Joel said there were 34 applications started at the time, and they were very optimistic with the early returns.

“Where you sit today and where you want to go in the future, I certainly think you can find some good quality candidates,” he said.

The Governing Board met at the Mohave District Annex on Nov. 19 to discuss the superintendent search. (file photo)

How much is a good superintendent worth?

Before the year is over, and the two newly elected Governing Board members take their seats, Mr. McPherson and Mr. Jacobson will return to winnow down the applicants.

On Dec. 20, the firm is expected to return to review applications and select finalists.

In January, more community meetings will be held for the public to meet their next potential superintendent. School officials say they are reviewing their ability to live stream those meetings.

In addition, in-person interviews with the Governing Board is scheduled around the same time.

When it comes to compensation packages, Dr. Kamerzell says, Arizona’s pay might be troublesome for applicants.

“As we recruit, base salary is going to be an issue. I can say that confidently,” she said. “We’ve already talked to a superintendent in Washington, who looks very strong, makes over $300,000.”

Information presented by Dr. Kamerzell at the meeting shows that in Arizona, suburban district’s superintendent base salary in 2017-18 ranged from:

  • Median: $157,050
  • Average: $161,207
  • Maximum: $216,111

In the suburban Phoenix area the average base salary is $192,725, with a total compensation of $190,305 to $245,034, when performance pay and other allowances are included.

The 2017-18 United States pay range, for districts with 25,000 or more students, is between $130,650 to $316,820, with a median of $260,000.

Independent archives show former superintendent, Dr. Denise Birdwell, had an annual contract worth $204,000, which included a $600 per month automobile expense; 20 paid vacation days; and 16 sick/general leave days.

SUSD has 30 schools serving about 23,000 students, and employing more than 3,000 people.

“What you’re really compensating for, is the work. What do you expect?” Dr. Joel asked. “When you compensate at the high end of the range, you have high end of the range expectations of that superintendent. If you compensate at the lower end of the range, then the message you’re sending is you don’t really want the higher end of the range people applying.”

Governing Board member Pam Kirby asked how the figure of $255,000 computes to an “innovative” superintendent, one of the desired qualities expressed by board members. Dr. Joel said it’s low.

“That’s my question — because that was one of our criteria — innovation,” she said.

Dr. Joel said those types of people are being heavily recruited around the country, and they command upwards of $300,000.

“But I have to tell you, your state’s different because of how you fund schools,” he explained.

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

“And, some of the states that are doing the most aggressive recruiting, they don’t have budget issues, they don’t have Red for Ed issues.”

Ms. Kirby says that puts the Governing Board in the position of understanding that they may not get an innovative, 21st Century leader, which they were hoping for when they put the job description together, if they stay within the $230,000-$255,000 range.

Dr. Joel and Dr. Kamerzell said it’s possible that up-and-coming superintendents could still fit in that category.

“On the other hand, you might have an assistant superintendent in a very large district who’s done all the work,” Dr. Kamerzell said. “And has a proven track record, but not the ‘superintendency’ itself. There are going to be folks like that who are interested in this position as well.”

Governing Board Vice President Kim Hartmann says she believes for the right candidate, total compensation is negotiable.

“I’m less comfortable with putting a cap on it, because I think we want to see what talent we can attract, and it really needs to be candidate specific,” she said.

“You want to make it our choice to decide if it’s the right candidate or not, not give a candidate a reason not to come here. And if salary is one of those, we don’t want to put that on the table. We want to create the best set of candidates. But for the right talent, total compensation is negotiable.”

Ms. Hartmann noted that there may be community partnerships who would be willing to pay an annual stipend that could go to the superintendent.

“Don’t create limitations if there’s ways to get around those things — if it’s the right person,” she said.

A view of a monument sign motorists encounter when entering into the city of Scottsdale. (File photo)

Perspectives from Scottsdale

For former SUSD officials and Scottsdale residents, both Rose Smith and Denny Brown say they’re feeling optimistic about the superintendent search.

Ms. Smith, however, says she’s also frustrated.

“Frustrated. This Governing Board is serving no one but themselves in accelerating the search at a time that will not produce the richest pool of candidates,” the former longtime SUSD employee says.

Rose Smith

“I’d prefer to proceed with care and hire the best possible leader, while keeping Dr. John Kriekard in place to properly transition that person. Optimistic. I believe that with the addition of two new board members, we will turn the corner and enter a new era of excellence for our youth and community.”

Mr. Brown enthusiastically said he’s optimistic, and believes Dr. Kriekard has done a fantastic job of calming the greater SUSD community.

“With new board members, and a renowned respect for community engagement, I feel we can find a leader that will enjoy the challenge of SUSD,” the former Governing Board member explained.

When it comes to increasing compensation for the right superintendent, Mr. Brown says pay is an issue.

“Fair compared to Chandler or Gilbert is right,” he said. “Scottsdale Unified School District is a prestigious district. Our parents, students, teachers and administrators have always shown well by comparison with other Arizona districts. That is worth something. In spite of some poor management, we will excel.”

Ms. Smith says she would not support a higher-than-usual wage.

“I’d like to think that SUSD is ripe for the right person to really demonstrate how we can soar. The right leader has the confidence to know that the accolades that come from a job well done is a reward in itself,” she said. “After all, it’s what’s expected of SUSD teachers.”

SUSD is the finest public-school district in the state, Ms. Smith says, comprised of a strong community of involved parents and citizens who support the district.

“Our families are often multi-generational SUSD students themselves, not the transient population found in many other Arizona communities,” she said, of what she’d want the next superintendent to know about SUSD.

“Scottsdale roots run deep; living here and serving the citizens of this community is a privilege. That said, an incoming superintendent must understand the dismal state funding of Arizona public schools and the override process. The only way to succeed is by success. Failure is not an option.”

Denny Brown

Mr. Brown says he would want the next superintendent to know that all of SUSD’s students, regardless of learning community, deserve the resources that will help them succeed. He quoted former superintendent, Dr. David Peterson, to prove his point.

“’If you want to raise the bar, you need to raise the floor,’ David Peterson said that and I believe it’s true,” Mr. Brown said. “Every school has its own culture. A leader will recognize that and capitalize on the strength. A superintendent must know that one size does not fit all in Scottsdale.”

Mr. Brown says an understanding and appreciation of a diverse demographic will be crucial, as well as a rigorous curriculum and the resources to allow and encourage every student to succeed.

“A superintendent is hired by the board. The board is elected to represent the desires of the community. With new representation on the board, I feel a new superintendent will have a better opportunity to work to the benefit of all Scottsdale,” he said.

One size does not fit all was also described by Ms. Smith, which she noted is part of what makes SUSD so great.

Ms. Smith says qualities that she believes are valuable for the next superintendent includes experience and knowledge of all facets of a K-12 public school district is of the utmost importance; as well as a connection to the community.

“There was a time when the superintendent was required to reside within the district. This allows him/her to be able to relate to the same issues and environment as the SUSD families,” she said.

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

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