Over the past two years, the Scottsdale Unified School District has adopted a number of reforms and policy revisions aimed at preventing the litany of controversies that plagued the district the past three years.
Even with the new policies in place, however, the district’s Governing Board has yet to act on whether or not it will hire an internal auditor – an idea pushed by new board members Jann-Michael Greenburg and Patty Beckman, the board president, during their 2018 campaigns.
The new policies that have been recommended by district leadership and approved by the board cover a wide range of issues, including procurement, conflict of interest, student safety and public comment.
Whether or not the existing changes have restored public confidence in the district that was damaged in recent years is unclear.
“I think we will have a much better gauge of that after Nov. 5,” said Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard, alluding to the ongoing budget override election.
Kriekard said he has heard support from the community for the district’s reforms and that “what I’m hearing anecdotally is that people are really appreciative of the fact that we are back to doing school business as it should be done.”
The district adopted several policy revisions concerning procurement and conflict of interest in light of the alleged violations that resulted in the firing of former Superintendent Denise Birdwell and resignation of former CFO Laura Smith – who is now on trial for those alleged violations.
In 2018, the SUSD board approved revisions to the board’s purchasing ethics policy in line with rules passed by the state legislature.
The revised policy included stipulations that district employees who supervise or participate in contracts “shall not accept or agree to accept any personal gift or benefit from a person or vendor that has secured or has taken steps to secure a contract, purchase, payment, claim or financial transaction with the District.”
The policy also prohibits employees not involved in contracts from attempting to influence coworkers who do administer contracts.
In firing Birdwell, the board alleged she had accepted $30,000 in payments from Hunt & Caraway architects in 2016 before the district ultimately awarded contracts to the firm.
The purchasing policy revisions also prohibit retaliation by supervisors against district employees who disclose potential violations of district policy or law.
In September 2019, the district amended its bidding and purchasing procedures, It says, “The Governing Board shall make available, for public inspection, all information, all bids, proposals and qualifications submitted, and all findings and other information.”
The board also updated its staff conflict of interest rules in 2018, in the wake of Smith’s resignation.
Smith, the former CFO, resigned and was ultimately indicted in Maricopa County on allegations that she signed off on contracts awarded to a consulting firm owned by her sister.
Susan Segal, the district’s outside counsel, told the board in 2018, the previous policy mirrored what many other districts had in place but was confusing and did not define “relative” or explicitly state what employees had to disclose.
“Any employee or officer who has, or whose relative has, a substantial interest in any decision of the District shall make known this interest in the official records of the District, and shall refrain from participating in any manner as an employee in such a decision,” according to the policy.
The rewritten policy includes explicit definitions of defines a relative and what constitutes “a substantial interest” in a prohibiting an employee from participating in a contract.
The new policy also required employees to fill out conflict of interest forms every year and notify the district of new conflicts of interest within 15 days a new conflict.
Segal said the district’s new policy is “on the cutting edge” and more intensive than what other district’s have in place, and included recommendations from a report issued by the Arizona Auditor General.
The Governing Board also adopted a new district policy on the use of restraint and seclusion techniques on students by district staff.
The district was recently ordered to pay the family of a former student $119,000 in legal fees related to the district’s failure to respond to public information requests stemming from allegations of improper use of those techniques.
A federal case filed by the family of Sean McCarthy is ongoing.
McCarthy’s parents alleged that staff at Desert Mountain High School used abusive use of force, including restraint techniques by untrained staff, against their son, who has non-verbal autism.
A memo from Dawn Schwenckert, SUSD’s then-director of Special Education, on Jan. 27, 2017, backs up the family’s account and stated that on Jan. 24, 2017, “Mr. Satterlie revealed he had performed holds on (the McCarthys’ son) and Mr. Satterlie is not CPI certified.”
The family also alleged the district failed to notify them of the use of force in a timely manner.
“We had no specific policy,” said Kriekard, who was not superintendent when the McCarthy incident occurred. “So, going through this in a manner that gives guidance to our staff as well as informs the public of what can be expected.”
The new policy also bans restraint or seclusion as a form of punishment and only allows the techniques to be used by trained staff if a student “presents an imminent danger of bodily harm to the pupil or others.”
The policy also outlines reporting requirements mandating schools notify parents on the same day if restraint or seclusion is used on their child.
“This is much more specific to the needs of not just special education students, but primarily special education students, who on occasion need to be held in a way that they don’t hurt themselves or others and can move back on to their educational plan,” Kriekard said.
Kriekard said the district has hired new administrators in many of the departments overseeing the new policies’ implementation.
There has been significant turnover at the top of the district.
Since July 2018, the district has hired three new assistant superintendents for human resources (Dr. Jed Bowman), elementary education (Dr. Ibi Haghighat) and secondary education (Dr. Milissa Sackos).
The district also hired Dr. Linda Brake as the new director of Special Education in 2019.
One new hire that has not taken place is an internal auditor.
Both Greenburg and Beckman pushed for the auditor in pre-election interviews with the Progress.
“I have consistently championed greater means of accountability and financial oversight, including the creation of an internal auditing department, an inspector general’s position within the District, quarterly compliance and ethics training, and annual conflicts of interest filings for all District employees,” Greenburg wrote in 2018.
In her Q&A, Beckman wrote, “Our board needs to commit to following best practices and state law. We need to work with an internal auditor as well as hire an independent outside auditing firm.”
Previous priorities approved by the board earlier in the year also identified the district’s auditing needs as an issue to address.
The district has not moved forward on hiring an internal auditor or outside firm due to a lack of consensus on the board as to what exactly that role would look like or if it should even hire an auditor.
“Well, we are still discussing that, because I have had varying interpretations of what that would look like and whether or not we should even have one from the various board members,” Kriekard said.
Kriekard said there is also some question as to who the auditor would report to – the superintendent or the board.
Kriekard said it is not unusual for a district to have an internal auditor on staff but that the specifics of the role can differ from district to district.
Based on conversations at the Sept. 17 meeting, it looks like Kriekard was leaning towards recommending an auditor who can review the district’s processes rather than just its financials, calling the latter redundant with the annual audit already performed by an outside firm.
Kriekard told the board that person would look at everything “from human resources to finance to purchasing” and other departments to provide “an outside set of eyes looking at whether our actions and strategies are consistent with our policies…”
At the Sept. 17 meeting, Board Member Allyson Beckham said she would like to know more about the specifics of what an auditor would do in SUSD, what the expected outcomes would be and how the district would measure those outcomes.
“So, we are not once again hiring a consultant or even if it’s an internal auditor coming in and six months down the road we really don’t have anything to measure it by,” Beckham said.
Kriekard said he anticipated the district would address the auditor question before the end of his tenure.
The board recently kicked off the search for SUSD’s next superintendent, which could be hired as soon as the end of February 2019.