When Scottsdale Unified School District announced the formation of an inclusion and equity committee earlier this month, it won unanimous praise from the Governing Board, but emails show behind-the-scenes concerns that district leadership’s rush to “hand pick” committee members could undermine its mission.
Outgoing Superintendent John Kriekard announced the district’s plans to develop an inclusion and equity model June 9, stating committee members would be “people who have been active and people who have voiced their opinion,” including some teachers and students already engaged in related issues.
As it turns out, the district was soliciting members for that committee before it presented the initiative to the board and public.
According to emails obtained by the Progress, Assistant Superintendent Milissa Sackos emailed high school principals June 7 requesting nominees for the committee and Kriekard invited at least one student to join on June 8.
Community member Stuart Rhoden, an Arizona State University instructor, also accepted Sackos’ invite to join the committee shortly after the June 9 meeting began. Sackos is leading the committee, emails show.
The committee’s composition – and the speed at which the district was moving – concerned multiple board members, who said the district should spend more time reaching out to the community to find members.
On June 12, Board President Allyson Beckham wrote Kriekard:
“I know you spoke to me about talking with some current administrators and teachers who would add value to this committee, however, I didn’t think every committee member would be handpicked or that you would be having the first committee meeting next week.”
Beckham wrote that she thought Kriekard intended to convene a small group of people to talk about the logistics of forming the committee.
“Please reassess the direction you are taking on this hand-picked committee,” she wrote.
Beckham did not respond to a request for comment.
Board Member Jann-Michael Greenburg was unaware the district was already selecting members, according to a June 11 email to Kriekard, but was already receiving calls from the community criticizing the process.
“I am only flagging this as I am continuing to get berated by people saying this whole thing is a sham,” he wrote.
Greenburg told Kriekard on June 11 that the district should open up the selection process to all interested community members and not handpick members.
“In my view that in order for such a committee to function properly and be representative of our diversity we must use a well-publicized, application process that is sent to all parents, students, teachers, etc. to fill out and return if interested in participating,” Greenburg wrote.
The next day, Greenburg wrote that “Diversity and inclusion is not just about diversity in race, religion, special needs, nationality, etc. It is also about diversity of viewpoint and opinions.”
In an email to the board, Kriekard defended the process.
“Some of you may have heard that members of this committee have already been recruited. That is correct. We, the cabinet, feel a sense of urgency on this project,” Kriekard wrote. “Like we find math experts when we put together the team for a math adoption, we have sought out experts on this issue.…”
Kriekard made a similar statement at the June 9 board meeting, stating the community expected quicker action on these issues in light of recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests it sparked around the country..
A district spokesperson said members “were selected to represent district administration and staff who are leading current District initiatives, Support Services staff who will assist in developing Student Assistance Programming (SAP) and school site representatives…high school principals were asked to assist in the selection of students and staff who are passionate about equity and inclusion.”
Parents will be picked based on volunteers and recommendations from schools, the spokesperson said.
In addition to Sackos, the committee also includes Assistant Superintendent Dr. Ibi Haghighat; SUSD General Counsel Michelle Marshall; Director of Support Services Shannon Cronn; Chief Security Officer James Dorer; and Executive Director of Title 1 Margaret Serna.
Kriekard will also serve on the committee until he retires on June 30, at which point new Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel will replace him.
Additionally, a handful of school administrator are on the committee, including Cain Jagodzinski, Arcadia High School principal; Nick Noonan, Cocopah Middle School principal; Stephen Cervantez, Desert Mountain High School assistant principal; and Kat Hughes, Principal, Echo Canyon School principal.
Greenburg, who attended the committee’s first virtual meeting a week later, said the panel’s composition is diverse but he is still concerned that there is not a “diversity of viewpoints”.
“The main criticism of the first meeting was that we did not elevate student voices the way that many of us had hoped, because ultimately this is to serve them,” Greenburg said.
There is also the possibility that more members could be added later.
“As the committee’s work moves forward, and goals, objectives and activities are established, we anticipate that more committee members will be sought and added,” a district spokesperson said.
Kriekard also pointed out that the district enlisted the help of the Scottsdale Parent Council to nominate parents and principals to nominate teachers and students.
But even that engagement appeared rushed and ill-timed, with Parents Council President Lara Palles stating that the group was not asked to help identify parents until after the June 9 board meeting – just a week before the committee’s first meeting.
The district declined to name the non-SUSD staff on the committee because it had not yet received permission from those individuals to release their names.
The district confirmed the committee will include four social workers, two school psychologists, two counselors, two school resource officers, three students from all five high schools, and two parents from each learning community.
Greenburg emphasized that he thinks the formation of the committee is a positive step for the district, but said his concerns about the speed at which district leadership is moving remain.
“I don’t agree with that,” Greenburg said. “I think that our community does want us to take action, but they don’t want us to just fling stuff on the wall; they want something that’s open, transparent and well thought through.”
Greenburg said he thinks the community would have preferred the district had taken a more methodical approach.
“I did not receive any complaints from anyone that we were not moving fast enough,” Greenburg said. “I had received a lot of complaints of we’re moving too fast.”
Though Kriekard said district leadership felt the need to act quickly, the timing is strange considering he announced the new initiative and began forming the committee just weeks before he was scheduled to retire rather than leave those tasks to Menzel, who has a professional background in equity and social justice issues.
Menzel told the Progress that Wash-tenaw County included schools in both predominantly white, wealthy communities and those in more diverse, low-income neighborhoods and that he focused on leveraging the resources of the entire community to benefit all students.
“And so, we’ve been working and dealing with different parts of our community that have access to resources and some that don’t and working to leverage the resources that we do have,” Menzel said. “Because just like Scotts-dale, we’ve got a community overall that supports public education.”
During his time at WISD, Menzel oversaw collaborations with United Way, the adoption of an Educational Equity Policy and an “opportunity mapping” project with Ohio State University to identify conditions impacting learning and quality of life in the district’s neighborhoods.
Menzel told the Progress he plans a hands-on presence in the committee.
“I intend to be very involved in the process,” Menzel said. “Establishing a committee with diverse representation, both within the school system and in the larger community is important and a necessary first step but a committee by itself doesn’t represent action.”
Multiple parents who spoke to the Progress also expressed excitement about working with Menzel on the committee and other initiatives.
“I’m very excited about Dr. Scott Menzel joining SUSD with his proven experience with equity, inclusion, belonging, and diversity, and I look forward to assisting him as a parent and a community member activist,” said parent Susan Hughes, a committee member.
But emails show no one from district leadership even communicated with Menzel about the committee until the day after the board meeting where Kriekard announced the initiative.
“I would welcome the chance to talk about this since we’ve spent the last four years at my current district going deep into this work. It is a personal passion and I would like to be involved as an active participant. Thank you for agreeing to chair the committee to make sure we begin to pull this together ASAP,” Menzel wrote in response to an email from Sackos.
Palles indicated the Parents Council was only asked to help recruit parents after the board meeting.
Palles said the SPC board decided it should not handpick nominees and would seek interested parents.
But by the time the SPC was able to put together a form for parents and get it to principals, there was not much time to actually push the info out before the first meeting on June 17.
“We felt that the principals were best situated to get it out to their communities…but, unfortunately, the reality of the timeframe wasn’t enough to really get to the principals to get the word out,” she said.