A former Coronado High School teacher must forfeit his teaching certificate and pay back over $19,000 in salary after it was found out he misled the district about his level of education.
When Austin Nichols was hired by Scottsdale Unified School District to teach science at Coronado, his application included an unofficial transcript showing he earned a PhD from Arizona State University in 2015, according to Arizona State Board of Education.
That level of education entitled Nichols to higher pay than teachers with a bachelors or masters degree and similar experience.
But Nichols did not actually earn a PhD from ASU.
On June 17, 2019, the Office of the Registrar at ASU told SUSD it had no enrollment records for Nichols, according to a recent state Board of Education agenda detailing a settlement between Nichols, the district and the state.
When contacted about the disparity, Nichols told the district’s human resources department that a professor had disputed one of his grades and that his records were frozen “and that as a result he had filed a lawsuit against ASU.”
There are no records of lawsuit filed by Nichols against ASU in Maricopa County Superior Court or a federal court in Arizona.
In July 2019, an attorney for Nichols told SUSD’s general counsel that he would not be able to produce the transcript.
The district did not request verification of Nichols’ transcript until June 13, 2019, even though he was hired in June 2017
It is still unclear why the district did not validate the transcript two years ago before hiring Nichols.
“We are unable to verify the process that was used by former HR staff,” a district spokesperson told the Progress.
At the time of Nichols’ hiring, SUSD was still under the leadership of former Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell, who was fired by the district in 2018 over allegations that she violated a litany of district policies and accepted payments from an architect who later was awarded contracts with the district.
The 2019 call to the ASU registrar was prompted by new policies, according to the district.
“As of 2019-2020, SUSD requires teaching candidates to submit official transcripts for all courses and degrees beyond a bachelor’s degree,” the spokesperson said. “For bachelor’s degrees, the Arizona Department of Education requires official transcripts when issuing initial teacher certifications. As a result, SUSD requires and validates all teaching certifications.”
Nichols’ hiring came during a period of significant turnover at Coronado High School as Birdwell forced teachers to reapply for their jobs as part of a plan to improve performance at the school.
When Nichols was hired in March 2017, Coronado was technically still under the leadership of principal Alyssa Tarkington. The board actually approved Tarkington’s resignation in February 2017 but her contract ran through the end of June that year.
Tarkington now works in district administration in the Phoenix Union High School District.
The board also approved the hiring of Christopher Gilmore as the new Coronado principal in February 2017, but he did not technically take over until July 1.
Gilmore left the school in 2018 to take over at Mesa’s Westwood High School.
Current Coronado Principal Amy Palatucci took over then took over Coronado on an interim basis before the Governing Board officially gave her the job in 2019.
Palatucci referred questions about Nichols to the district’s communications staff.
By all accounts, Nichols was an active, even celebrated, teacher during his time at Coronado.
In addition to starting an a capella club and gaming club, Nichols was named the Scottsdale Charros Teacher of the Year for 2017-2018.
According to the board of education, Nichols signed a General Agreement and Release with the district on July 9.
Records from the SUSD Governing Board’s show Nichols resigned on August 20, 2019.
On June 22, the Arizona State Board of Education also suspended Nichols’ teaching certificate for four years.
The state board on June 22 approved an agreement for Nichols to repay $19,489 in the overpaid salary and suspended his teaching certificate for four years.
Under the agreement, the board could reinstate the certificate after the suspension if he makes the agreed upon payments.