When the SUSD Governing Board named Dr. Scott Menzel the district’s next superintendent at the end of February, there were fewer than 20 cases of COVID-19 in the entire U.S.
Now, the new superintendent, who officially took the reigns on July 1, is challenged with reopening schools amid an unprecedented pandemic that has resulted in over 75,000 cases in Arizona alone.
The pandemic threw an unforeseen wrench into the equation for Menzel, who had to transition out of his previous job as the superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Michigan while also undertaking a cross-country move to Arizona.
Because of the crisis and various quarantine requirements, Menzel and his family were not able to make trips to Scottsdale before they arrived on June 25 – putting on hold typically routine activities like house shopping.
“We couldn’t look for houses, so we’re going to be renting short term in order to be able to explore the community and look for a permanent place to live, so that’s one of the things that’s different,” Menzel said.
But the pandemic didn’t stop Menzel from staying in contact with outgoing Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard and district leadership in preparation for his transition.
“All the work was done remotely; thank God for technology,” said Menzel.
Kriekard said he and Menzel had weekly meetings and spoke as often as two or three times a week to discuss district operations.
“I’m very optimistic and really wish Scott Menzel the best,” Kriekard said.
The challenges posed by the pandemic extend well beyond Menzel’s transition into the job, though.
It’s dominating conversations at every level of the district as SUSD prepares plans to reopen schools and works on plans to keep everyone safe.
Menzel said that the district is focused on keeping students safe but also needs to watch out for teachers and staff who may be even more susceptible to serious side effects from COVID-19.
Prior to Menzel’s arrival, the district announced it was considering three options for returning to school: online only, all in-person classes and a hybrid option.
The district is scheduled to unveil its full plan at Menzel’s first Governing Board meeting on Tuesday, July 7.
But, even before the plans are announced, Menzel cautioned that they could change and that the district has to be prepared to adjust as conditions change on the ground and more guidance comes out from Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Education.
“The other thing that’s really important is to understand that we’ll communicate where we are in the process and what our best thinking is at the moment, but recognize that in a week from now, two weeks from now, a month from now, things could be different based on a number of variables that we don’t control,” Menzel said.
That emphasis on communication will extend beyond the district’s response to COVID-19, Menzel said – which should come as a relief to some parents who have said district communications can be lacking and leave parents feeling out of the loop.
Menzel said that later this month, the district will launch an online platform called Let’s Talk! – designed to bridge the gap between parents, teachers and staff.
The platform will let members of the community post concerns or kudos and give district staff the ability to track emerging issues and provide timely responses.
Menzel said that will help deal with issues caused by messages getting lost inadvertently in crowded email inboxes.
“Let’s Talk! creates an accountability mechanism so that we can track the responses to the questions or concerns, and then the customer gets to provide a feedback score,” Menzel said.
Lara Palles, president of the Scottsdale Parent Council, has been involved in the district’s ongoing reopening discussions and said she’s encouraged by what she has seen from the new superintendent.
“I do think that Dr. Menzel has had an influence on that already, where he came into some of the committees and made it clear that…people need a window to what’s going on in the committees.”
Beyond COVID-19, Menzel is also taking on extra duties as he takes over at SUSD.
While much of the existing district leadership will carry over from Kriekard’s administration, a key figure – interim Chief Financial Officer Jeff Gadd – retired.
Gadd entered the district alongside Kriekard in 2018 in the wake of controversies surrounding fired Superintendent Denise Birdwell and former CFO Laura Smith, who was indicted on charges of fraud and conflict of interest.
Smith’s case is still pending in Maricopa County Superior Court and is scheduled to go to trial in September following multiple delays.
At his last board meeting, Kriekard credited Gadd for helping stabilize the district’s finances.
With Gadd leaving the district, most of his responsibilities will fall to Shannon Crosier, who served as director of finance under Gadd and will take on the interim-CFO role.
Some of Gadd’s responsibilities will shift to Menzel, lessening the burden on Crosier.
Menzel said Crosier is “extraordinarily skilled and has high confidence from everyone that I’ve spoken with in the district, and my experiences with her have been great as well, but she didn’t bring in the breadth of experience in terms of supervising all those other departments.”
Dennis Roehler, director of facilities management, and Brendan Wagner, director of transportation, will now report directly to Menzel instead of the CFO.
Chief Systems Officer Debi Spaulding will also no longer report to the CFO and will report to Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Guerin.
“So we wanted to keep her focused in as acting CFO on the financial aspects of the house and had moved those other items,” Menzel said.
Menzel said he does not anticipate that shift will be long term, and those oversight duties could shift back once the district hires a permanent CFO.
Menzel also told the Progress he plans to be a hands-on participant with the district’s new equity and inclusion committee and is invested in ensuring all students succeed throughout the district.
“We have some distinct differences between our five learning communities, so we’re Scottsdale Unified School District, but we’re not uniform,” Menzel said.
Menzel said he looks forward to having “long overdue” conversations about equity and including the community in those discussions.
“The challenge in my mind is how do we ensure equitable access and opportunity so that every student was in our district, regardless of what their zip code is, where they live, who their parents are, what their relative affluence is – those things shouldn’t determine their likelihood of success as they move through our system,” Menzel said.
Menzel said SUSD has plenty of strengths to build off of going into the new school year, giving credit to Kriekard for putting the district in a position to succeed.
“What he’s been able to do to stabilize Scottsdale Unified School District is truly commendable and, quite frankly, what makes it a job that was worth pursuing,” Menzel said.
He said the district’s staff is a major asset.
“Parents will sing the praises of the teachers to no end, and so I think we have so many assets within the district that I believe we actually can be a truly high-performing district by every measure,” he said, citing the district’s relatively solid financial position due partly to passage of the SUSD budget override last year – and the community support that the override exemplifies.
“The support of the community overall for what we’re trying to accomplish makes a huge difference,” he said.
As for his immediate agenda, Menzel said much of his first 90 days will be spent engaging with the community. He said he started having those conversations in March.
“But there’s still a lot of people that I haven’t met, and a lot of conversations that need to happen,” Menzel said. “And really those are designed to help elevate what the hopes and aspirations are of this community for schools.”