Following a tumultuous year of uncertainty that led to the ousting of its top brass amid allegations of misuse of bond funds and conflicts of interest, Scottsdale Unified School District finally has its leader for the next school year.
The school board last month officially named John Kriekard interim superintendent through the end of the 2018-19 school year.
But Kriekard is solidly behind the board’s search for his replacement.
“I think a real important part of this next year is finding the right superintendent to take over that will create a stable and sustainable leadership for the district,” he said.
Kriekard’s appointment was met with applause from community members who attended the meeting, many of whom addressed the board and urged members to keep Kriekard — who had served in the interim position since May — until a permanent replacement was found.
Scottsdale resident and community activist Mike Norton told the board that a local petition asking for Dr. Kriekard’s contract to be extended had gained over 1,300 signatures.
“Dr. Kriekard came out of retirement to help us (bring) our district through a challenging time,” Scottsdale Parent Council Co-President Nikki Turitto said at the meeting where his appointment was approved.
“He has stated that his number one goal is restoring trust and with his solid experience, leadership abilities, dedication and collaboration; he is doing just that,” Turitto added.
Kriekard, a respected career educator who served as superintendent in the Paradise Valley Unified School District for seven years, has a lot on his plate between now and the end of his contract as he grapples with the existing bond issue and attempts to repair SUSD’s fractured relationship with the public.
“His style is relational at its core,” Paradise Valley Superintendent Jim Lee said. “He will mend relationships and build relationships in a way that is instrumental to having a successful school district.”
Lee said he considers Kriekard a mentor and previously worked as an assistant principal under him in Scottsdale at Mountainside Middle School.
Kriekard acknowledged that rebounding from the district’s issues is a tall task. Ultimately, though, he views his job in simpler terms.
“The first thing is to continue the effort that the governing board has been stressing for a few years now, and that is it’s all about student academic achievement,” he said. “It’s about student learning. That’s the bottom line.”
Kriekard has taken a student-centered approach throughout his career.
“They could not have found a better person in my opinion,” Lee said. “He has a calming, rational, student-centered approach to leadership that would suit any school district.”
Kriekard also said it is his job to restore trust with the community as the district works to be more transparent.
“It’s a matter of building trust and confidence in the community, and again, that’s long term,” Kriekard said. “You don’t rebuild trust overnight. You rebuild that over series of promises and promises kept and right decisions being made.”
Parents, students and staff should not expect Kriekard to institute wholesale changes off the cuff as he works to address the district’s issues, though.
“I’m not a person just to fill the time and sit back, but I’m also not, not a person who makes drastic, quick changes,” he said. “That has to be done overtime, so we will be setting up some systems (to make those decisions).”
He said that though his position is temporary, three of the four assistant superintendents he brought in will stay in permanent positions after he leaves. They include: Jed Bowman, human resources; Ibi Haghighat, elementary education; and Milissa Sackos, secondary education.
Sackos was promoted from her previous position as Executive Director of Support Services.
Steve Nance, assistant superintendent for education services, is a holdover from the previous administration and will also continue on.
Of the five cabinet members, only Chief Financial Officer Jeff Gadd is working on an interim basis.
Over the next several months, Kriekard expects to gather data to lay a foundation for the district’s direction moving forward.
“We have information available to us today that we wouldn’t have had 25 years ago, and it’s just a good practice to use that data to make informed decisions.”
Those decisions include where to invest money in building or renovating schools. Kriekard said that decision can create conflicts between two concepts that he believes in — the importance of neighborhood schools and the need to be accountable to taxpayers.
In order to gather data the district needs, Kriekard has brought in expert help, including Skip Brown, a former Paradise Valley schools assistant superintendent for support services and planning. Brown had started his own consulting firm that specializes in bond issues.
Brown will meet with district stakeholders and review existing demographic data before delivering a report to the board and superintendent on Oct. 4 that makes recommendations for future bond initiatives.
The district is also working with Applied Economics to prepare a demographic study to be presented at the same meeting.
Kriekard said the reports will help the district identify where student growth is likely to occur in the future so it can allocate resources accordingly.
“(Data is) not all of it,” he said. "There can be creative decisions made by really digging into the data. Sometimes it may not be obvious and that’s what we’re hoping for is that we find some things that are community responsive as well as to the taxpayer.”
Kriekard is a natural choice for the interim superintendent role as he spent much of his career with SUSD and already has a positive reputation within the community.
After serving in the army for two years in the Vietnam era, Kriekard taught for five years near Kalamazoo, Mich. before moving to Arizona to attend graduate school at ASU.
His military service informed his decision to become an educator.
Kriekard said the Army “was a great melting pot, and I became convinced in many late night discussions about issues that there was a calling to go into education.” He added that experience convinced him that education was the answer to solve many social ills.
After attending ASU, Kriekard worked as an assistant principal in tiny San Manuel, Arizona near Tucson for a year before coming to SUSD as an assistant principal at Chaparral High School.
He spent the next 23 years working in the district in various capacities, including principal and assistant superintendent. He said that history played a role in his decision to accept his current position.
“You spend 23 years in one place, and you gain an affinity and caring for it,” he said.
He left the district in 2002 to work as an assistant superintendent in PVUSD. After a year in that position, he became superintendent — a job he held for six years until he retired for the first time.
He came out of retirement for the first time to become interim superintendent at Deer Valley Unified for a semester.
After the stint at Deer Valley, Kriekard retired again before being brought back into the workplace a year and a half later to work for Science Foundation Arizona.
The contract with SUSD will keep Kriekard with the district until June 30, 2019 or until a permanent superintendent is hired. The district is currently in the process of selecting a firm to assist in that process.
Getting that selection right is key to the long-term stability of the district, which has churned through a handful of superintendents over the past decade.
That is why the board is taking special care to select a firm that knows Scottsdale and has a history of selecting superintendents that stick around, Kriekard said.
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