SUSD Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard

Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard, who recently had the interim tag removed when his contract was extended through June 30, 2020, meets with attendees at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at Cocopah Middle School. (Pablo Robles/Progress Staff Photographer)

New Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent John Kriekard has many strengths – retirement just is not one of them.

The new district leader came out of retirement for a third time to take the helm at SUSD on an interim basis in 2018.

Kriekard had the interim label removed and his contract extended through the 2019-20 school year at a governing board meeting on earlier this year.

“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 told the Progress last fall.

As it turns out Kriekard provided that stable leadership, though the stable part is still in question as he expects the district to search for his replacement at this time next year.

In some ways, Kriekard is the obvious choice to run the district, having spent a significant portion of his career as an assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent in Scottsdale before moving on to the Paradise Valley Unified School District, where he served as assistant superintendent and then superintendent.

Kriekard also had widespread support from parents, teachers and the larger community as evidenced by the significant number of speakers who addressed the governing board in 2018 and pleaded with the board to extend his contract.

“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 a Governing Board meeting last year.

“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,” she added.

The board also largely supports the new superintendent as well – the vote to extend his contract was unanimous – and new board President Patty Beckman has spoken effusively of Kriekard and his leadership.

“I know that the number one thing that resonated with (the community) about Dr. Kriekard was not only his experience and his talent and his caring for our students and our teachers, but the fact that he knows this community and it’s reciprocal,” Beckman said. “He knows this community and the community knows him.”

In other ways, though, his appointment was surprising.

The board awarded a contract worth up to $36,900 to search firm McPherson & Jacobson last fall to find the district’s new leader and, though he had expressed a willingness to stay on if needed, Kriekard was not expected to be a candidate for the full-time job.

However, the previous board expressed displeasure with the candidates brought forward late last year and left the decision about Kriekard and the district’s future to the new board that took office in January.

The new board suspended the search firm’s contact on February 7, having spent approximately $12,450 on the search so far.

Some changes in the making

Kriekard, still under the interim tag, last fall said he did not plan to make wholesale changes at the district, which was still recovering from the fallout of multiple scandals connected to the previous administration of Denise Birdwell.

Rather, Kriekard expressed a desire to be a bridge to the next administration.

In some ways, his approach has not changed after having the interim title removed.

“My approach is still fairly measured…I don't run around in a panic about things,” he said.

That being said, he has pursued some changes at the district, including some that predated the removal of his interim title.

“We have set some things in motion though in the acting phase just because I didn't believe that we could rebuild the confidence in the district within the community without moving forward on some key issues.”

Those issues included the growth plans the district instituted for elementary schools struggling with enrollment. The plan gives the schools a two-year timeline to reach 400 students and includes a one-year mark to show significant improvement.

Kriekard said it was important to put the growth plans in motion early on, because the district will have to make important decisions in the next six to eight months related to declining enrollment.

“There’s still, I think, in the community a sense that we are overbuilt and declining in enrollment and it just creates more efficiency if we consolidate,” Kriekard said. “So we have to make a decision on that.”

Kriekard said he is not giving up hope that the schools involved in the growth plans can turn things around but the district still needs to be prepared to make tough decisions regarding enrollment.

“Now if the schools come out of that and show, at the beginning of the school year especially, a lot of growth, then that's a great surprise,” he said. “But if not, we need to deal with that.”

One of the next programs that Kriekard plans to tweak is the Coronado Success Initiative, collaboration between SUSD, Arizona State University and other stakeholder groups designed to improve academic performance and outcomes for students at Coronado High School.

Kriekard said he does not intend to change the goals of the program but the approach, which will now focus more heavily on schools throughout the Coronado Learning Community instead of just the high school.

“We’re looking at Coronado as more of a pre-K through (grade) 12, not just the high school,” he said. “The high school has some unique needs, but probably each one of the elementary schools and Tonalea K-8 has some unique needs as well.”

New leadership created

Potentially the greatest change will come in the form of new leadership.

Kriekard said he plans to bring a motion before the board to name Tavan Elementary School Principal Margaret Serna the district’s executive director of Title 1.

Title 1 schools are those that have a large number of low-income students and receive federal funding to help improve student skills and help them reach grade-level proficiency.

“Her main function will be to coach the principals of the other Title (1) schools, which are all of the Coronado schools plus two others, in the ways that she turned Tavan around,” Kriekard said.

Since taking over at Tavan Elementary, Serna has improved academic performance and, the school has earned an A letter grade from the State of Arizona.

That is a significant accomplishment since the school serves a less affluent population than many other schools in the district. For example, 71.4 percent of students at Tavan receive free or reduced-price lunch, the third-highest mark in the district.

Of the five schools in the district with highest percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, Tavan is the only to receive an A grade from the state.

Those letter grades have been criticized by educational professionals in the past for their reliance on the results of standardized tests like AzMerit.

Kriekard said Serna will be tasked with working with the other eight Title 1 schools, all but two of which are in the Coronado Learning Community, to share the techniques and skills she has learned over the years.

“It is not at all a change in our goals for helping prepare the elementary students for the next level and the high school students for whatever their life is after high school…We're looking at what I think is a more hands on in the classroom approach school by school.”

He also said the district also plans to eliminate a support position at Coronado High School that was created to help with the initiative but “was not directly impacting instruction,” Kriekard said.

He said many functions covered by that position, including coordinating internships and bringing in professionals to speak with students, could still be supported by the current Coronado administration.

Ultimately, Kriekard said the change was provoked by his desire to focus on improving academics throughout the Coronado community and to provide more coaching for administrators.

“We can only go so far if we're just concentrating on the high school, so this year we started to work with the elementary schools,” Kriekard said. “And what we saw is that the elementary principals are asking for help and want to know what is successful at other schools and Margaret brings that knowledge and that expertise.”

Renews sense of trust

Beyond those specific policy goals, Kriekard has also brought a renewed sense of trust to the relationship between district leadership and SUSD’s teachers and staff.

Kriekard said that the district worked collaboratively with teachers, including members of the Scottsdale Education Association teachers union and non-members, when it created the new teacher handbook.

Under the previous administration, teachers had complained that teacher input was largely ignored during those processes.

Kriekard did not indicate whether or not he supported the district officially recognizing and negotiating with the SEA but did say he has heard from at least one governing board member who would like to have those discussions in the future.

“I don't care whether a teacher is an SEA member or not; I'm going to treat them as professionals and we’re going to work together collaboratively,” he said.

In another move that likely won him points with teachers and staff, Kriekard proposed he receive a five percent raise when he signed his new contract – the same raise being given to teachers and staff throughout the district this year.

“My view of superintendent contracts and, specifically, the dollar amount or salary is that it is more than just about compensation; it's also about making a statement and being part of the school district community,” he said.

His new base salary of $201,600 is below a maximum salary in the $250,000 range discussed by the Governing Board during the search last year.

Kriekard said that he may have been able to ask for more money because of the board’s difficult position, but that he did not believe that was right.

“What’s right is to not take money away from teachers, classifieds or administrators,” Kriekard said.

Though the board removed his interim tag, Kriekard is still likely not the long-term solution at SUSD as his contract expires on June 30, 2020. He indicated the district will begin looking for his replacement early next year.

He did say he hopes some of the district’s existing assistant superintendents will be up for the job – not simply because they are here but because they are qualified candidates.

Kriekard committed to doing his part to make that happen by mentoring his assistant superintendents in all aspects of the job.

Kriekard has a track record of mentoring successful superintendents.

Dr. Jim Lee, the retiring superintendent at PVUSD, got his start as an assistant principal under Kriekard in SUSD and was an assistant superintendent during Kriekard’s time in Paradise Valley.

He is now wrapping up a nearly-unprecedented 10-year run at the helm of one of the state’s largest districts.

“I’ve maintained a close relationship and friendship with John over the years and he has mentored me in ways that really (helped me),” Lee said. “Frankly, any administrator would be fortunate to receive the type of mentorship he has given me over the years, and I am really grateful.”