AG probing SUSD Governing Board

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board met on Dec. 12, 2017, just days before it allegedly committed open meeting law violations during an executive session on Dec. 14.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office is investigating Scottsdale Unified School District for multiple alleged open meeting law violations that may have occurred in late 2017 and early 2018.

The attorney general’s office sent a letter on July 3 to attorney Susan Segal, the district’s outside counsel, notifying her of the investigation.

According to the letter, the attorney general received a complaint alleging that open meeting law violations took place during executive sessions held by the SUSD Governing Board on Dec. 14, 2017 and Feb. 21, 2018.

The complaint alleged that the board discussed topics that were not posted on the meeting agenda made available to the public.

Arizona state law allows school boards and other public bodies to meet in executive session out of public view in limited situations, including receiving legal advice, discuss potential employment decisions or discuss pending contracts under negotiation.

However, in most cases, the school board is required to provide notice to the public before an executive session that includes “a general description of the matters to be considered,” according to statute.

According to the letter from the Attorney General’s Office, the complaint alleged that discussions took place that were not properly noticed.

Three current SUSD board members were on the board when the alleged violations occurred: Barbara Perleberg, Sandy Kravetz and Allyson Beckham.

Perleberg, Kravetz and Beckham did not respond to requests for comment.

Former board members Pam Kirby and Kim Hartmann also did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Scottsdale Unified School district declined to comment for this story.

When asked if they had knowledge of the content of the conversations that allegedly violated open meeting laws, a spokesperson for the Attorney General said they could not answer that question.

Though it is unclear what alleged discussions prompted the complaint, school board documents provide some clues as to what was supposed to be on the agenda. 

The alleged violations took place at a time when the district was embroiled in controversy over procurement violations related to the use of district bond monies for school rebuilds and other capital projects under the leadership of former Superintendent Denise Birdwell.

At the time, SUSD was embroiled in a controversy over the rebuild of Hopi Elementary School after stakeholders voiced concerns about Hunt & Caraway, the architecture firm hired by the district.

A story by public radio station KJZZ and Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting that broke just days before the Dec. 14 meeting disclosed that Hunt & Caraway may have received favorable treatment in the procurement process and received a $60,000 payment before bidding had even closed on the district contract.

KJZZ reported that local concerned residents also discovered that Hunt & Caraway president Brian Robichaux was not a licensed architect in Arizona and had been convicted of theft for misusing over $125,000 from a Department of Transportation contract.

The Arizona Attorney General began investigating the district’s procurement issues in late 2017. The district settled a civil lawsuit filed by the Attorney General related to that investigation in October 2018.

The  Dec. 14 meeting took place in the midst of this chaos.

The board’s executive session agenda for the meeting included discussion and legal advice regarding Arizona School Procurement Code and district procurement policies.

The meeting agenda also mentioned discussion and legal consultation “regarding contracts that are the subject of negotiations, or in contemplated litigation regarding architect professional services and construction,” and discussion and legal advice regarding a performance evaluation of Birdwell.

The board did not take any action when it concluded the executive session on Dec. 14.

The two additional alleged violations took place at an executive session on Feb. 21, 2018 – when the board noticed the public that it would discuss a litany of matters that dominated headlines at the time, including the Attorney General’s ongoing investigation and the status of district contracts with Hunt & Caraway.

The board’s notice also said it would discuss administrator contracts and, ultimately, decided to put Birdwell on temporary paid leave at the end of the meeting.  

On March 20, 2018, the board took the first steps to dismiss Birdwell when it adopted a statement of charges against her, including allegations she received two checks totaling $30,000 from Robichaux, according to public radio station KJZZ.

The board ultimately agreed to pay Birdwell $150,000 to resign to avoid potentially-costly litigation, according to KJZZ.

At the Feb. 21, 2018, meeting that is the subject of the current complaint, the board‘s notice also said it could discuss Laura Smith, the former district CFO accused of signing off on contracts with a consulting firm run by her sister. 

Smith is currently the subject of an ongoing criminal case brought by the Arizona Attorney General in Maricopa County Superior Court on charges of conflict of interest and fraud.

It is unclear if the violations alleged in the complaint to the Attorney General had anything to do with the litany of controversies the district was dealing with in late 2017 and early 2018.

It is also unclear who attended the meetings in question.

Official minutes for the Dec. 14 special meeting that preceded the executive session show that that Perleberg, Beckham, Hartmann, Kravetz, Kirby and Birdwell were in attendance. 

In a video of the special meeting, Perleberg said Beckham left the executive session early.

It is unknown if SUSD General Counsel Michelle Marshall or Segal, the district’s outside counsel, were present at the meetings.

Official minutes for the Feb. 21 meeting state that Perleberg, Beckham, Kravetz, Kirby and Birdwell were in attendance. Hartmann arrived late.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General declined to provide the name of the individual who filed the most recent complaint.

Under Arizona state law, minutes and discussions made at board executive sessions are to remain confidential from everyone except members of the board and employees who were the subject of discussion in the session or the Auditor General in connection with an authorized audit.

County attorneys and the Arizona Attorney General may also be given access to records of these discussions in connection with an investigation of alleged violations of Arizona open meeting laws.

The Attorney General referred the investigation to its Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team and requested the district provide meeting minutes, available audio or video recordings and affidavits from all those present at the meetings.

The district has 30 days from receipt of the letter to comply with the request.