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Scottsdale Unified School District Pays Superintendent, COO To Resign

The Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) will pay Superintendent Denise Birdwell $150,000 to end her contract early.  

The district governing board voted 4-1 to approve the severance agreement at a special meeting Friday.

The board also approved a settlement with Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell for $30,000.

It was the first time the governing board has not voted unanimously in regard to recent investigations and administrative departures.

Attorney Joel Sannes explained going through a hearing process to fire the administrators could take months — and cost the district more money.

“Attorneys care about justice, but what we really care about is giving good return on investment for legal dollars,” Sannes said. “It’s really hard to see an economic resolution that’s better than these settlements.”

The settlement for Birdwell is worth about one-third the cost of her contract, which runs through June 2019.

MORE: Read Denise Birdwell and Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell's severance agreements →

The board previously took steps to fire Birdwell for cause. Sannes said her attorneys indicated she would request a hearing.

The district would have had to pay Birdwell through the hearing process and pay additionally for the hearing officer, expert witnesses and attorneys.

“Resolving the matter will conserve district resources and also preserve the morale of staff who might be involved in the hearing process,” Sannes said.

Even when the process was completed, Birdwell and Hartwell could have filed an appeal with the Maricopa County Superior Court and possibly claim age discrimination, defamation or intentional interference with contract.

The district’s actions do not prevent Birdwell and Hartwell from collecting money from the state retirement system.

READ: Attorney Joel Sannes presentation to the board →

Each board member explained their vote and most expressed discomfort with the agreements.

“I would also like to see justice, however I’ve learned that justice comes in many forms, not always the ones that feel best,” said Allyson Beckham.

She called for changes in the district’s finance office, board policy and agenda review.  

Pam Kirby was the lone ‘no’ vote.

She highlighted the settlement prevents the district from suing Birdwell and Hartwell. The rule also applied to the district, protecting it from the former administrators.

“Until we know the extent of any possible wrongdoing and all the facts, I am not comfortable asking taxpayers to possibly forgo restitution to the district,” Kirby said.

An Eventful 2 Years

Both Hartwell and Birdwell have been on paid administrative leave since February.

The Scottsdale Education Association, which represents some district teachers, cast a rare vote of no confidence regarding the superintendent in January.

Birdwell started in the district as an interim superintendent in January 2016 and was hired permanently in December of the same year.

One of her first priorities was changing Coronado High School. The district reported that only a dozen Coronado students took an AP exam and 57 applied to Arizona’s public universities.

The initiative included professional development for teachers and collaboration with Arizona State University’s teaching college. More controversially, all educators at the school had to reapply for their job.

Parents and community members also raised concerns about school building projects they felt moved too quickly last year.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office announced in February that an architect hired by the district was not licensed and unfairly influenced the bid process. He also has a felony conviction.

The Arizona attorney general continues to investigate the district’s business practices.

Some Scottsdale teachers feel like Birdwell’s administration disenfranchised them by stripping of them of their ability to bargain with the district, work with new teachers and by ending a long-standing employment agreement.

‘It’s Hard To Say It’s Justice’

About 20 parents, teachers and community members protested outside and filled seats inside the meeting room.

Charlotte Gilliam Talson held a sign with the words “Not another cent to pay off the criminals you brought to SUSD!!”

“It’s about more than just us,” Gilliam Talson said. “Everybody in SUSD district pays our taxes and toward paying for our kids’ education, so everybody in our community needs to know about this.”

Scottsdale resident Dan Drake waited in the audience until the end of the board meeting.

He was one of the first people to look into the renovation project at Hopi Elementary School last year.

“The economics are evident, and the board voted based on economics,” said Drake, a lawyer.

“It’s hard to say it’s justice for the teachers, the people who have been oppressed by this individual,” Drake said. “It’s hard to say it’s justice for the community that has had to endure this.”

The controversy over the past year and half has cost the district at least one teacher.

Beth Parsons, a second-grade teacher, said she’s retiring after 30 years in the classroom, 25 of those in Scottsdale.

“There are people like myself who are cutting their careers short because of the discomfort,” Parsons said, her word choice belying her frustration. “That’s a really mild word, discomfort.”

She said the governing board failed to listen to teachers when they raised concerns about the administration last year.

“I want to be hopeful that people who deserve second chances get them, and I think that what we need to do is start to look at where the mistakes are, what is it that we really value,” Parsons said. 

Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.