In the week since the Scottsdale Unified School District announced three finalists for superintendent, the community is raising questions about the selection process and two candidates.
The Governing board selected three finalists from a pool of 29 applicants during a five-hour executive session on Jan. 30. They will now go before five committees of community stakeholders.
The finalists are Dr. Kimberly Guerin, assistant superintendent for educational services at SUSD; Dr. Scott Menzel, superintendent at Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Dr. Shelley Redinger, superintendent at Spokane Public Schools in Spokane, Washington.
Some community members expressed concerns the board did not have adequate time to vet all 29 applicants.
In an email to Superintendent John Kriekard and the board, parent Susan Hughes asked if enough time was given to consider all applications.
District spokesperson Amy Bolton confirmed board members were only provided applications on the morning of Jan. 30.
Hughes’ concerns are shared by board member Jann-Michael Greenburg, who said he got the applications less than three hours before the executive session.
“I only had time to get through about four applications” before the session, Greenburg said.
Greenburg said he had made requests early in the search process to have access to the applications as soon as possible and was initially told he could see them a day earlier.
It is unclear whether other board members thought they had enough time.
Board President Allyson Beckham and members Barbara Perleberg and Sandy Kravetz did not respond to a request for comment. Board Vice President Patty Beckman declined comment.
Greenburg said he thinks the three candidates “merited interviews” but also noted he would have supported bringing even more candidates before the community.
This ties into another criticism of the board’s selection process: some stakeholders argue community committees should meet more candidates.
Hughes, who said she thinks Guerin is a strong candidate, suggested the board bring “semi-finalists” as well.
“Although it is a welcomed gesture to invite community members, it is in my opinion giving them a say in questions of the finalists as opposed to the semi-finalists feels disingenuous,” Hughes said.
Greenburg said he did not like using the word “finalist” because the community has not yet had a chance to weigh in.
“’Finalists’ is bad term,” Greenburg said. “All we are actually doing is saying these are people we could agree to interview at this time.”
Hughes said some people were surprised candidates with local knowledge and strong ties to the district were excluded.
Hughes told the Progress she was referencing current SUSD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Milissa Sackos and Mesa Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Shaun Holmes.
Sackos, who has been with the district since 2000, declined comment.
Holmes was with the district from 2005 through 2016 and resigned during the tumultuous tenure of former Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell.
Holmes confirmed he applied for the superintendent job and found out he was not a finalist through the district’s announcement to the community.
Greenburg, citing rules about the board’s executive session, declined to comment on specific applicants.
“Should we have invited other people with intimate knowledge of the district? Assuming people like that did apply… for me, again, I would have invited more people,” Greenburg said.
According to posts on social media, including the Respect Our Scottsdale Students Facebook page with more than 3,200 followers, the call for more candidates appears linked to concerns with the two out-of-state candidates.
Some concerns center on how they would operate in an Arizona district as both Redinger and Menzel work in states with significantly higher per-pupil funding than Arizona.
According to education publication EdWeek’s Quality Counts 2019 report, Arizona spent $8,335 per-pupil while Washington spent $11,125 and Michigan spent $13,016 per-pupil.
However, neither candidate views Arizona’s funding model as insurmountable, though they both acknowledged it is a challenge.
Menzel said he had to deal with funding shortages in the late 2000s and it is important to make sure the district is functioning efficiently.
He also noted state funding is ultimately driven by enrollment noting, “Much like Arizona, Michigan is a choice and charter state where the funding follows the student to the school of their choice.”
Menzel said bringing students back to the district from charters and other districts is pivotal to avoid cutting programs.
“While it is unfortunate schools are pitted against each other in this fashion, it is the current reality,” Menzel said.
Still, he acknowledged the state’s funding level “is a challenge” even for efficient districts, but noted Arizonans have made efforts in recent years to push for more money.
“My belief is a budget reflects the values of the organization and the state’s contribution to public education reflects its values as well,” Menzel said. “In Arizona, the Red for Ed movement mobilized people and called attention to the real issues associated with underfunding the public education system.”
Redinger, too, experienced budget constraints.
In April 2019, the Spokesman-Review reported Spokane Public Schools would have to lay off 325 employees due to budget cuts.
The cuts were the result of $31-million budget shortfall resulting from a change in Washington State’s education funding formula.
Redinger stressed those cuts were necessitated by a court decision affecting districts across the state and not the result of poor planning by the district.
“We have really good budget planning, and our audits are always amazing, so no, it has nothing to do with that,” Redinger said. “It’s a state issue.”
Redinger said her administration solicited community input through forums and other means before making any decisions and worked to keep the cuts out of the classrooms.
She said her experience in creating dialog with stakeholders would help continue to restore the community’s trust in SUSD, stating “the goal is to continue positive momentum” started by Kriekard, the board, staff and the community.
Hughes also brought up concerns about Menzel’s experience.
Menzel is currently the head of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, which coordinates efforts and provides services to local districts in Washtenaw County.
Though the Washtenaw district covers about 47,000 students, but it does not have day-to-day oversight over any specific district.
Menzel argued his experience prepared him to take on the job at SUSD, which serves about 22,000 students, citing his experience at Washtenaw and superintendent positions he held at smaller public school districts in Michigan.
Menzel, who was superintendent at the Livingston Educational Service Agency serving about 30,000 students at districts in Livingston County, said intermediate districts in Michigan have more responsibilities than country superintendent offices in Arizona.
“I have operated at the systems level overseeing a budget of more than $154 million, working with the community to successfully pass special education funding millages as well as a bond issue for facilities, overseeing comprehensive professional development, launching new initiatives, advocating for funding and policy changes to improve the public education system,” Menzel said.
Menzel also has experience as superintendent at smaller individual districts. He was superintendent at Whitmore Lake Public Schools, which had just fewer than 1,500 students at the time, from 2002 to 2007.
Redinger heads a single district serving more students than SUSD.
Spokane Public Schools had an enrollment of 31,222, according to the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction.
However, other issues at the Spokane district have caused concern in Scottsdale.
In June 2019, Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction found Spokane Public Schools overused isolation techniques to deal with students with behavioral issues.
The Inlander newspaper said the state found Spokane’ use of isolation was 10 times higher than other large districts.
SUSD recently had its own issues with improper restraint techniques. Mary and John McCarthy filed a federal lawsuit against the district, alleging restraint techniques used against their son amounted to physical abuse and the district failed to notify the parents after the incident. This case is ongoing.
Redinger said her administration worked to address the restraint and seclusion issues by providing new training for staff emphasizing de-escalation over isolation.
On Jan. 23, the Inlander reported use of seclusion and restraint in the Spokane district is down 77 percent.
Redinger said the district provided more de-escalation training to security officers and is using an approach focusing on rehabilitation over punishment.
This year, Inlander reported suspensions and expulsions for students in intervention programs are down roughly 27 percent and in-school discipline is down approximately 31 percent.
When asked why they wanted to come to Scottsdale, Redinger and Menzel gave similar answers.
Both have family ties to Arizona and cited the recent overwhelming support for the district’s budget override as proof SUSD has strong community support.
Additionally, both Redinger and Menzel said they view Scottsdale as a spot where they can spend the rest of their careers.
“While I’ve enjoyed my career in Michigan, I plan to work another 15 or more years and because of the family connections, I decided to look at opportunities in Arizona,” Menzel said.
Redinger said, “I’m looking for long term opportunities where I can really make a difference…I have about 10 to 15 years left, so I am just really wanting to have a long term opportunity and really make a difference.”