Stephan: the nightmare at SUSD is not over yet

On Friday night, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board voted 4-1 for severance packages totaling $180,000 for the superintendent and her de facto brother-in-law.

Ian Hammond Stephan

This action came following drawing up charges against them of severe, routine, and likely criminal activity, violations of dozens of ethical standards and district policies, and the bilking of taxpayers of tens of thousands of dollars and potentially far more.

Governing Board member Kim Hartmann said in defense of her vote for the severance package that it was at least partially so that SUSD teachers “can put this behind them.” This comment is the best example yet of this Governing Board’s complete and utter lack of understanding of the feelings of the district’s teachers and the reasons why so many left last year and so many more will leave at the end of this year.

To my recollection, since this board began working together, they have never held a vote that was not a 5-0 or 4-1 majority, and one can probably count on a single hand the number of 4-1 votes over the last two years. The Birdwell era was and is not over simply because Dr. Birdwell has been paid to leave — the same Governing Board members who hired her, extended her contract, endorsed virtually all of her actions, and gave her a golden parachute on the way out are still there.

Over the last two years these five Governing Board members voted 5-0 or sat by and watched without voting at all as Dr. Birdwell and her cronies systematically dismantled long-running systems that had contributed to stability and transparent district operations, as they alienated and ostracized the teachers and their representative body, the SEA, and as they abandoned the 49-year-old Teacher Employment Agreement without anything beyond a vague set of statewide Governing Board policies in its place prior to the beginning of the school year.

They chose to allow the district to abandon the 49-year Meet and Confer process with the SEA and to take away the SEA president’s release time, which for decades had served as an all-purpose liaison between teachers and the district. These policies and institutions had been the most important and reliable method of ensuring that the majority of the teachers’ concerns, problems, issues, and feelings were taken seriously by the district.

A supermajority of the district’s teachers signed cards earlier this year demanding that the governing board recognize the SEA as the teachers’ representative body.

Prior to this governing board in the Birdwell era, the SEA formally met and conferred in interest-based negotiations with the district throughout the year, had the president routinely meet with the superintendent, cabinet members, and board members face to face, work with the district to create meaningful staff climate surveys to provide the board members the real pulse of the district’s teachers, as well as a host of other important functions.

This year the SEA has been largely relegated to speaking on behalf of nearly 1200 of the district’s 1300 teachers through 3-minute comments at governing board meetings or emailing board members individually.

These five board members will say that they are always available to hear from teachers, but they have eradicated every institutional means for doing so, leaving teachers to try to find time to meet or call outside of their full-time jobs in SUSD and whatever else they may be doing to earn enough money to get by as teachers in Arizona.

Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell are gone, but the majority of the remaining district cabinet members are Birdwell appointees, the five Governing Board members recently voted 5-0 to renew virtually all of their contracts for next year, including at least one who sat on the committee that voted to give the bond contract work to a formerly convicted felon with long-standing ties to Dr. Birdwell, and the taxpayers lack of faith in the ability of this Governing Board will hinder the success of bond and override elections for years.

For teachers in this district, and for taxpayers, there is no putting this behind us. Dr. Birdwell was the symptom, not the disease. Outside of three-minute public comment sessions once a month and whatever community emails they choose to read, these five Governing Board members, voting in regular 5-0 lockstep, have largely insulated themselves from the feelings of their constituents and the districts’ employees.

Only in a vacuum of their own making could this Governing Board imagine that paying Dr. Birdwell and Mr. Hartwell $180,000, releasing them from any district claims, known or unknown, while simultaneously rehiring the rest of her cadre and making no movement to restore any of the institutions or policies that had protected teachers in the past would somehow help teachers to “put this behind them.”

The Birdwell fiasco will only truly end when this Governing Board either reinstates the previously mentioned policies and institutions, which allowed teachers to play a truly meaningful and representative role in the district’s operations, resign from the board, get recalled, or get voted out of office.

If they really are interested in putting this behind us, they will choose the first of those options. If not, get ready for a lot more ugly 5-0 votes through next November.

Editor’s note: Mr. Stephan is the Scottsdale Education Association vice president

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