SUSD Governing Board

Four candidates for SUSD Governing Board participated in a virtual forum hosted by the Scottsdale Parent Council on Sept. 29.

Four of the six candidates running for Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board participated in a forum last week to discuss a range of topics facing the district, including financial responsibility and enrollment decline.

The online forum featured candidates Julie Cieniawski, Dr. Libby Hart-Wells, Zachary Lindsay and Rose Smith. Candidates Kathleen Angelos and Lucy DiGrazia declined to participate.

The forum included questions submitted by the host Scottsdale Parent Council and families.

One question centered on the candidates’ approach to fiscal responsibility – a significant topic in SUSD, which came under scrutiny by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office three years ago due to alleged impropriety under former Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell.

Cieniawski, a retired SUSD teacher and former head of the Scottsdale Education Association, said fiscal responsibility begins with understanding how district finances work, a point echoed by other candidates.

Cieniawski said she has taken several courses in school law and finance, including a course taught by recently-retired SUSD CFO Jeff Gadd years ago.

She also suggested the district bring stakeholders back into the budgeting process.

“I think they were effective promoting fiscal responsibility,” Cieniawski said. 

Hart-Wells, an adjunct faculty member in the chemistry department at Glendale Community College, also emphasized a need to understand the budget, stating she her approach to fiscal responsibility is “understanding expenses compared to revenue, and then understanding justification for expenses.”

Smith, a former SUSD para-educator and staffer, argued she has a leg up on her fellow candidates in understanding the budget due to her job history.

“Having worked for the schools, I understand the different buckets of money,” Smith said. “I understand the chart of accounts and how things are funded…I know where to look and where the funding is coming from for different school allocations.”

The candidates also pointed to changes that could be made to improve transparency and accountability.

Hart-Wells pitched a role for a “visionary CFO” that would “have deliverables to the board where the principles of the sites are also involved and become part of that discussion of justifying expenses as long as they’re in line with the mission, not as a micromanaging tool, but as an oversight mission.”

Both Hart-Wells and Lindsay, who works in financial services, also advocated for an internal auditor position to monitor compliance with the district’s policies.

Current board member Jann-Michael Greenburg has long advocated for an internal auditor since he first ran for office in 2018, though those conversations have not found much traction thus far.

Smith applauded the district for its existing online dashboard that includes all of the district’s budget documents over the past several years, but said the information should be expanded.

“And it would be nice to have more reports and such available to the public just at a click,” Smith said.

Lindsay said SUSD should fall in line with other Valley districts by increasing the amount of financial information available to the public on the agendas posted online before every board meeting.

He pointed to SUSD agenda information on newly-hired administrators that only showed the individual’s name and school site.

“And you can go to any other district and you can pull up the same information and they show salaries, start dates, where they went to school,” Lindsay said. “Just much more out in the open with the way they’re spending money.

The topic of school budgets is inextricably linked to enrollment in Arizona, a school choice state where funding follows students.

Enrollment has declined in SUSD for years.

In 2018, Rick Brammer with Applied Economics told the district that it had lost about 4,800 students since 2001 and projected a loss of another 1,800 by 2028.

Some of that loss is attributable to the rise in popularity of charter schools, according to experts.

In 2018, Brammer said the district lost 4,000 students since 2010, a time period in which charters in the district added 5,200 students.

Lindsay said it’s difficult to narrow down why individual families chose to leave, though he argued the issues during Birdwell’s tenure were a contributing factor.

“Our chaos and disruption was their gain,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay said he believes SUSD already has programming and offerings to compete with charter schools but that the district needs to do a better job marketing them.

Cieniawski cited marketing as a contributing factor to enrollment decline, stating she believes parents are “being sold a bill of goods that really creates the sense that the public schools are failing due to fiscal starvation.”

“And doesn’t everybody want what’s best for their kid? Cieniawski said. “Of course they do, but I’m going to ask…does the crest on the shirt or this shiny new building really mean improved academics? “I don’t think it guarantees that,” 

Cieniawski said the district needs to do a better job publicizing its successes to the public, listing off achievements like its Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs, dozens of National Merit finalists and International Baccalaureate programs.

Hart-Wells said one of the board’s main points of focus should be the district’s success stories, going so far to use her final closing statement to congratulate various students and staff that had notable achievements in recent weeks.

Both Hart-Wells and Smith said exit surveys of families leaving the district would be helpful but acknowledged they could be hard to compile in a way that would provide valuable data.

“We may find some things we don’t know already,” she said.

Smith said that the surveys would only be beneficial if they can be done “with fidelity” and noted, in many cases, that is unrealistic.

“Sometimes parents, we don’t even know that they’re leaving,” Smith said. “We get record requests from the school that they’re enrolling to and we don’t have time to even ask them why they’re leaving our schools.”

Hart-Wells said the district should seek to find out why families are choosing to come to SUSD “and only then can we come up with an effective and efficient strategy to increase enrollment.”

Smith said the district should focus on areas where it can compete with charters, contending it can offer many of the same or similar academic programs that are typically used in charter marketing materials.

Over the course of the hour-long conversation, the candidates touched on a number of other topics, including COVID-19 and student mental health.

The forum can be viewed on the Scottsdale Parent Council’s official YouTube page.  

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