Greenburg: Perleberg perception lacks footing in reality of SUSD transgressions

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a number of parents whose children attend schools in the Scottsdale Unified School District. One of their key concerns was the failure to teach our students to think critically.

Jann-Michael Greenburg

This is nothing new — middle schools and high schools across the United States have a storied history of failing our students in this regard, making them often ill-prepared to face many of the academic and professional challenges in their future. This failure is painfully obvious when it comes to Scottsdale Unified School District’s Governing Board, some of whose members, including President Barbara Perleberg, seem to lack critical thinking skills altogether.

It has become clear President Perleberg and the Governing Board are conflating disparate issues either in a frivolous attempt to confuse the public and absolve themselves of any wrongdoing for their poor leadership, or because they simply do not understand the issues raised in the first place. Neither conclusion is particularly welcomed, but at least in the latter, the Governing Board has the ability to claim that it is not their fault – they are simply the victims of a severely underfunded public education system to which they have added more problems and pressure.

To be clear, the Scottsdale Unified School District and its Governing Board are facing two very different lines of criticism:

  1. that they have not improved student education outcomes but have instead permitted the District to continue to hemorrhage students and teachers, while creating a toxic environment within which to work and learn;
  2. that the district’s administration has committed serious ethical and legal violations that have directly and indirectly harmed the district, its teachers, students, and reputation while benefitting members of the administration personally.

The allegations, which are now being corroborated with greater frequency include, and are unfortunately not limited to, nepotism, cronyism, accepting personal favors from district vendors, hiring unqualified individuals with falsified résumés, aiding and abetting schemes to defraud public schools of their already limited funds, and aiding and abetting individuals in their attempts to defeat their obligations. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

President Perleberg, in her opinion article published in the Scottsdale Independent on Feb. 13, conflates these two lines of criticism — again, either on purpose or because she lacks the facility to think critically. There are no laws in the United States that prevent individuals with impaired cognitive skills from being elected, even twice.

Regardless, President Perleberg begins her article citing the “successes” the district has achieved over the past year and spends a fair amount of time describing them. She then writes that the Governing Board and Scottsdale Unified School District’s administration, led by Superintendent Birdwell, have faced “an onslaught of personal attacks, crushing demands on administrative resources, and a campaign of negativity…[w]ith irresponsible disregard for balanced truth.”

President Perleberg’s comment is entirely nonsensical. There is no such thing as “balanced truth” — something is either true or it is not.

Assuming Ms. Perleberg’s claims of success are entirely correct does not negate the fact the Scottsdale Unified School District’s administration has committed serious ethical and legal violations, nor does it absolve the administration of them. For example, a president of a board might present sensible ideas as to how to improve a school district, but that president might also hire individuals who are unqualified, steal from the district, terrorize its constituents and are of low moral character.

Both statements can be true, and someone investigating or criticizing the behavior of the administration should not be labeled as “irresponsible,” lacking “integrity,” or “fear-mongering,” nor should his or her name be placed on a modern-day enemies list at the district. It is startling to contemplate that the collation of an enemies list would be the focus of the administrations’ attempts to fix the district.

This is more akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

When individuals notified the Governing Board that there were concerns surrounding former Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith and her obvious conflicts of interest, or current Chief Operating Officer Louis Hartwell’s fancifully fabricated résumé and family relationship to Superintendent Birdwell, those individuals should have been thanked for their research, for doing the Governing Board’s job, and the matter addressed and rectified by the Governing Board without delay.

Of course, one would hope at some point that the members of the Governing Board would have exercised their critical thinking skills and make decisions in good faith, with loyalty and due care, and corrected any possible mistakes they might have made.

Unfortunately, these basic management concepts seem entirely foreign to President Perleberg. Then again, this shortcoming might not be her fault. As Mark Twain once wrote, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

Editor’s note: Mr. Greenburg is a graduate of Arcadia High School and the University of Edinburgh’s School of Law. He is a Scottsdale resident

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