Maricopa County School Superintendent Steve Watson

Maricopa County School Superintendent Steve Watson, left, swears in new Scottsdale Unified Governing Board members, from left, Julie Cieniawski, Zach Lindsay and Dr. Libby Hart-Wells.

Addressing the pandemic’s impact on students and staff will be a main priority for the new Scottsdale Unified Governing Board in 2021.

Returning members Patty Beckman and Jann-Michael Greenburg, both entering their third year on the board, said the district must focus on addressing learning gaps among students that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“My focus for 2021 will be to identify learning gaps as a result of COVID-19, provide needed emotional and scholastic supports, align budget priorities to fund these support measures,” Beckman said.

The district’s response to the pandemic – including the decision to keep schools open to start the second semester – has divided the community.

While some parents have applauded that decision, others and teachers have expressed concern that it unfairly exposed staff to unnecessary risks.

Incoming board member Julie Cieniawski, a retired teacher, said disagreements over the district’s management of the situation have “weakened the fabric of our community.”

“We all need to be dedicated to become a part of the solution and work to get things done to help, whatever that might be,” she said.

Beckman, Cieniawski, and Greenburg all said the district must value input from teachers and staff as it determines how to move forward.

“All of our staff - from our bus drivers to our teachers to our administrators - have been working incredibly hard under extremely difficult circumstances to serve our students and provide them the best education possible,” Greenburg said.

Cieniawski said the predicament provides the district the opportunity to reform its processes and that she supports a district-wide equity audit along with performance assessments.

“Continuing to do things in the same old manner is not what is best for our community moving forward,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly identified our systemic weaknesses and our inequities, and requires that we manage and lead differently in the future. 

Incoming board member Zach Lindsay also said he would like to examine the organizational structure at the district.

“The district received far less than expected from the state’s enrollment stabilization grant, which will make any organizational changes that much more important,” Lindsay said.

SUSD was one of many districts around the state that received less than it expected from the grant, which was supposed to make up for budget shortfalls caused by declining enrollment during the pandemic and the disparity in reimbursement between in-class students and those who learn online.

SUSD expected to receive about $16 million from the state, but only saw $9.6 million.

Lindsay pointed out the board will also have several important non-pandemic issues to consider this year, including the hiring of a new chief financial officer and general counsel.

Interim CFO Jeff Gadd retired in 2020, and General Counsel Michelle Marshall tendered her resignation in December.

“These decisions will all have a major effect on the district moving forward,” Lindsay said.

Both Lindsay and Greenburg said the potential hiring of an internal auditor at the district should also take priority in 2021.

Greenburg has pushed for the district to hire an auditor for much of his two-year tenure at the district with little success, though those conversations appeared to progress near the end of 2020.

In December, Superintendent Scott Menzel told the board he met with Scottsdale City Manager Jim Thompson and the City Auditor Sharron Walker late last year.

Menzel, who has expressed concern about how much it would cost the district to hire its own auditor, said SUSD, could contract with the city for its auditing needs.

In addition to hiring an auditor, Greenburg said the district needs to focus on crafting its new strategic plan, the document that outlines long-term goals and priorities for the district.