Scottsdale Unified School District Could Fire Superintendent, As Parents And Teachers Hope For Change

By Mariana Dale
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 - 8:49am
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 3:12pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (11.32 MB)

SUSD Governing Board
(Photo by Mariana Dale -KJZZ)
The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board.

The Scottsdale Unified School District has faced increasing public criticism since the attorney general started investigating the district’s business practices.

Tuesday the governing board is scheduled to consider the dismissal of Superintendent Denise Birdwell and Chief Operating Officer Louis Hartwell.

Both were placed on paid administrative leave in February.

Birdwell’s contract runs through June 2019. There are several options should the board decide to terminate her employment.

To discharge Birdwell for cause, the board will have to outline why it’s firing the superintendent in writing. Birdwell would have 15 days to request a hearing, which would have to occur no more than 30 days later.

The board could unilaterally terminate Birdwell. The district would then be responsible for variety of payments including unpaid salary, leave and health insurance. The agenda shows the board could also negotiate a severance package or continue the administrators’ leave of absence.

Tuesday’s meeting begins at 3 p.m. at Coronado High School. It’s the ninth special meeting the governing board has held this year to address a mounting list of concerns from irregularities in how the district hires vendors to conflict of interest in its financial office.

Denise Birdwell
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent Denise Birdwell.

A Call For Transparency

The Hopi Elementary Variety show is the pinnacle of performing arts for the school’s students.

The curtains rise on a number based on the Broadway show "Hamilton." It’s one of three dozen musical numbers.

“It’s big,” Dana Fuller said as she weaved around kids and props backstage. She has two kids in the show and volunteered to ensure all the students are in the right place at the right time, in the right costume.

Off-stage, Fuller has spent hours this year researching her son’s district, pulling court records and reading news articles.

 “It was most upsetting that those that we had placed trust in were not worthy of that trust and they weren’t being careful with our public funds,” Fuller said.  “They weren’t holding people accountable and they weren’t being transparent in their business practices.”

Fuller helped organize a February rally.

More than 300 hundred parents, teachers, students and community members gathered outside a governing board meeting. They called for transparency, new leadership and respect for teachers like Claudia Vickers.

“I have been a teacher for 11 years, and I never have seen a situation like this,” Vickers said.

The Scottsdale Education Association cast a rare vote of no confidence in the superintendent in January.

Denise Birdwell is the fourth person to lead the district in the last decade.

“I knew our superintendents just passing by, but this superintendent, she is famous, and it’s not necessarily for the good practices,” Vickers said.

SUSD Rally
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
Calls for new leadership, transparency and respect for teachers and students were common on signs held by ralliers.

Bonnie Bezon teaches at Kiva Elementary School and said the controversy has been a distraction.

‘We expect them to govern so we can concentrate on what our job is and our job is to teach,” Bezon said.

A December KJZZ investigation revealed problems in how the district hired construction companies for multimillion-dollar projects.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office found that an architect hired by the district was not licensed and unfairly influenced the bid process. He also has a felony conviction.

The attorney general's investigation is one of several reasons the district governing board has held eight special private meetings this year. The longest was 10 hours.  

“Good evening, I don’t think it’s morning yet,” Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg said as she called one meeting to order past 11 p.m.  

Usually the governing board meets publicly, but state law allows legal and personnel issues to be discussed privately.

The district has occasionally waived that privilege, like for attorney Susan Segal.

Segal found former Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith broke the law by continuing to sign off on district paperwork related to a company she co-owned. Smith resigned in February, followed by Chief Operating Officer Louis Hartwell.

SUSD Governing Board Presdient Barbara Perleberg
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board Presdient Barbara Perleberg.

The governing board placed Superintendent Denise Birdwell on administrative leave in February.

Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg said at the time it was in the best interest of the district.

“There will be more information available absolutely in the future,” Perleberg said.  She was elected to the governing board in 2012.

KJZZ sat down with Perleberg Monday, and when asked about the past year’s challenges, she took a long pause.

“Our business systems and checks-and-balances systems have proven to be weaker than we had hoped,” Perleberg said.  

She said the district hasn’t communicated well with the community, and the governing board needs to create new policies.“We embrace our mistakes and embrace our challenges as the best learning opportunities,” Perleberg said.

A Series Of Public Forums

The governing board named Amy Fuller acting superintendent. Birdwell hired her last year to oversee a project to improve academics at Coronado High School.

She said her priority is to ensure the district is fully staffed next year and focus on academic achievement.

“Scottsdale Unified School District is not collapsing,” Fuller said. “It’s an excellent district. It’s full of very prepared faculty and staff.”

Parents and community members can meet Fuller and share their thoughts at a series of public forums starting this week.

“I’m going to be there to listen,” Fuller said. “I want to hear their perspective. I want to hear what they think we’re doing well and what we need to improve on.”

Brad Veale was one of about 50 people in the audience at Monday’s meeting.

SUSD Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg and Acting Superintendent Amy Fuller.
(Photo by Mariana Dale - KJZZ)
SUSD Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg and Acting Superintendent Amy Fuller at a March 2, 2018, meeting.

“I love this school district,” Veale, who has two kids in the district, said. “It breaks my heart that we’re going through this right now, but we can only get stronger for it.”

Veale said he’s concerned recent controversy could hurt schools’ reputation and, in turn, make it harder to get voters to support additional funding.

“Parents aren’t feeling heard,” Veale said. “I don’t think our teachers are really feeling heard in the last year and that’s not a good place to be as a community.”

He was one of several people that spoke up about long-term issues in the district.

“I’m very concerned about the state of funding for public schools in the state of Arizona,” said Katherine Martin, who also has two children in the district.

The parents at the meeting all expressed a care and concern for a district they care about and want to see succeed. The same ideas are what motivated Dana Fuller to get involved.

“We have a lot of work to do but this gives us hope that if we preserve that we can make it right and we can restore confidence in our district,” Fuller said.

Hear More

If you like this story, Donate Now!