Greenburg: ‘this Governing Board is a disaster’

On March 20, the President of SUSD’s Governing Board, Barbara Perleberg, gave a 15-minute interview (available here) in which she exposed a simple truth of the current membership of the Governing Board: they have no idea what they are doing.

Jann-Michael Greenburg

Despite having served on the Governing Board since 2013, Ms. Perleberg stated in her interview that she “stand[s] by the belief that our district as a whole is seriously unprepared for the environment of choice that we exist in, and seriously unprepared for the important reforms that public education faces.”

It is unclear who exactly is to blame for this in Ms. Perleberg’s eyes but given the ultimate responsibility for running our district rests with our Governing Board, it is questionable how one could serve for five years and fail to “prepare” our district for such changes.

Ms. Perleberg has obviously forgotten that she is, in fact, a member of the board and is, unfortunately, the board president.

Needless to say, in the same interview Ms. Perleberg explained how proud she is of the work the Governing Board has done. Apparently, Ms. Perleberg had also forgotten that two of the individuals the board unanimously agreed to hire — Dr. Birdwell (CEO) and Mr. Hartwell (COO) — were found to have accepted bribes, wrongfully accessed the email accounts of board members, lied to the district’s outside counsel, falsified résumés, and engaged in bid rigging, and that is just what has been made public.

Some of these actions form the basis of the Attorney General’s lawsuit against the district. However, these events seemed to slip Ms. Perleberg’s mind. In response to being asked what she has found challenging at the district this year, Ms. Perleberg stammered the following reply:

“I’m going to have to gather my thoughts on that one. Um, obviously, uh, the, the, the politics and challenges, um, that we have faced as our business systems and checks and balances systems have, have, um, uh, proven to be weaker than we had hoped, and when we … Um, I need to take a moment.”

As Ms. Perleberg is now in her fifth year as a board member, it is negligence if not malfeasance that she asked the community to entrust her and her fellow board members with the proceeds of $250 million dollars in bond funding and has just admitted on the record that they had “hoped” there were adequate financial controls in place to properly manage the money.

Hope is not an acceptable course of action from the stewards of our community’s money.

Further, Perleberg’s convenience-driven amnesia is commonplace among board members. In the past few weeks alone, former Governing Board Vice-President Pam Kirby seems to have woken from her managerial coma, writing a few thousand words to our community with her “thoughts” concerning the district.

Ms. Kirby has suggested in multiple articles to the Scottsdale Independent that the fix to the district’s ailments was to establish a nine-member committee of community members, ask our state legislature to renew Proposition 301, and ask our state government permit districts to enact a “Teacher Salary Override.” In the first place, Ms. Kirby is seemingly unaware that such an override already exists in the form of a maintenance and operations override, which can be used to pay teachers’ salaries. Her idea is neither “bold” nor “new” as she claims: it already exists (Paradise Valley Unified School District passed one for over $20 million in November 2017).

In the second place, not one of these suggestions tackles the fundamental problem within our district: failed governance. In April 2017, members of the community notified the Governing Board members of serious ethical and legal problems with the district’s administrators.

These allegations included documentation demonstrating that:

  1. Mr. Hartwell (COO) was unqualified for the positions he held;
  2. that Ms. Smith (CFO) was a partial owner (with her sister) of a company that was a vendor to the District;
  3. that Dr. Birdwell (CEO) had obtained personal benefits from district vendors; and
  4. that Mr. Robichaux (“architect” for school rebuilds) was a convicted felon and not an architect.

The Governing Board’s response to this information was to appoint Ms. Smith CFO of the district and to also appoint her as the district’s internal auditor, meaning Ms. Smith was in charge of supervising herself. This is prohibited by the board’s own policies and in the most favorable light reflects the board’s ineptitude — in the least favorable light, their collective stupidity.

Each and every one of these allegations were well-supported by evidence as they were presented to the Governing Board and were well-reported on by this very paper. The Governing Board did nothing but decry members of the community as “politically motivated” and peddling in “fake news.” Ms. Perleberg wrote that the information presented was “balanced truth.”

This Governing Board is a disaster.

Nonetheless, the Governing Board does not have to serve out their term as a lost cause. There are several key steps they can take immediately to begin reversing the havoc they have wreaked over the last two years. But without proper governance this district will never turn around its seven-year trend of decreasing student attendance and millions of dollars of administrative overspending.

The Governing Board should:

  1. hire an independent internal auditor (as is required by Board policy) who is required to re-apply for his or her job every two to three years. This independent internal auditor should be a CPA with bonafide experience in public accounting;
  2. hire respectable, independent external auditing firms (e.g., KPMG, Deloitte, PWC, or EY), rotated every three years, to ensure our limited resources are being used properly;
  3. implement robust ethics policies to prohibit unethical or unprofessional behavior, including but not limited to policies that prohibit any district employee from obtaining any benefit(s) (i.e. not even a candy-bar) from any district vendors, policies that prohibit employees from abusing district resources, and policies that require employees to disclose every possible conflict of interest;
  4. hire an Ombudsman who has the power to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by district employees. This Ombudsman should have the power to review all district documents, should be a CPA with bonafide experience in public accounting, and should report directly to the Governing Board; and
  5. implement annual compliance training and checks, including annual employee conflict-of-interests checks.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are immediate steps can be enacted quickly and are the types of checks and balances that are found at every major corporation. They are best practice. They are common sense. We can no longer “hope” that the Governing Board understands this, so it is best to spell it out for them.

Editor’s note: Mr. Greenburg is a Scottsdale resident and candidate for the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board

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