SUSD: Just One Meeting

As former Scottsdale City councilman Bob Littlefield has often said,

If you want to see what’s wrong with government, just attend one city council meeting.

After having researched Scottsdale Unified School district extensively for some time, combing through meeting minutes and agendas, statutes, policies, attorney general opinions, etc., I finally attended my first SUSD governing board meeting yesterday. I wouldn’t say I left with certainty about “what” is wrong with SUSD, but it strongly confirmed my feeling that “something” is wrong.

The SUSD board had a special meeting yesterday to air out some of the issues surrounding the lease of the now-shuttered Tonalea campus to a former board member, as well as the planning process for the future of the campus that did not include the residents of the neighborhood until after they got wind of it and got mad about it.

In a nutshell, Denny Brown leased a portion of the Tonalea campus to distribute food boxes during the month of December, and have a Santa experience for some needy folks. No one disputed those were noble uses of the campus.

However, during the ensuing discussion there were more questions raised than answered. These included why there were two leases (one of which was never approved, and a second that was signed by the SUSD CFO long after the events for which the property was leased were terminated); whether SUSD policies permitted leasing to an individual as opposed to an “organization”; whether the lessee had in-place the required insurance since no proof was on file; whether the term of the lease was for a month (the document essentially said six months); and whether the SUSD attorney represents the board or the administration (she serves at the pleasure of the superintendent, so there’s no question in my mind about her client).

Beyond those questions, for which responsive answers are yet to be forthcoming, I’m troubled about a number of aspects of yesterday’s meeting.

It bothers me that Superintendent Peterson waited until the meeting commenced to distribute a rather large (looked like about half of a ream of paper) file of his emails that he represented as a timeline on this issue. It is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about materials presented to the body (let alone not being made available to the public) while the meeting at which they are presented is underway.

It bothers me that the executive director appeared to be completely unprepared for the meeting, especially regarding the survey that triggered much of the concern.

It bothers me that Peterson was only marginally adept at citing SUSD policy, or more precisely Arizona School Board Association policies. ASBA is a private organization which represents itself as providing, “…training, leadership and essential services to public school governing boards statewide”…an essential component of which seems to be interpreting state statutes and making recommendations about ensuring district policies comply with statute. Ironically, the URL for ASBA’s “About Us” page includes “policy services,” but the word “policy” doesn’t appear anywhere on the page. Hmmm.

You can see SUSD policies on the ASBA website. Make sure you click on the “plus signs” before the policy title, because clicking on the title itself leads to a blank page. Go figure. Some pertinent polices flow from K-1650, “Community Use of School Facilities.”

But back to SUSD policy acumen…these policies were cited, as well as ARS 15-1105, “Lease of School Property.” I was a chagrined, however, that Peterson didn’t seem to have any knowledge of ARS 15-342 “Discretionary Powers” [of a district governing board]. I’m no expert on public school law, nor do I care to be. But even a glance at 342 makes me think it’s applicable.

It’s clear from the “timeline” that Dr. Peterson created by recitation of his emails [collated at the request of board member Pam Kirby], that discussions regarding activities other than school uses at Tonalea have been ongoing since at least last summer. There was virtually no frank communication to the Tonalea neighborhood about these plans until recently. School resources were used in the form of email lists and personnel involvement in distributing a non-district-approved “survey” to SUSD parents. This last is what triggered the current turmoil about the future of Tonalea, as the survey asserted (without authorization and approval) what the promoters of the community resource center idea assumed to be a done deal.

Peterson’s timeline also revealed that–as I suspected all along–Scottsdale city council member Virginia Korte’s fingerprints are on this.  That probably means that council members Linda Milhaven (a Wells Fargo exec, along with board member George Jackson) and Suzanne Klapp are involved, too. Mayor Jim Lane was probably too busy trying to get a state-level appointment (Ice cream truck inspector?) from newly-elected Governor Doug Ducey to really understand what was going on.

Korte is apparently trying to move Scottsdale Training and Rehabilitation Services (STARS) out of their longtime home on Osborn across from Scottsdale Municipal Stadium. Korte earns $120,000/year for her service as CEO of STARS. And I find it interesting that SUSD board president Bonnie Sneed is on the Board of Directors of STARS.

There’s also a strong stench of Scottsdale Healthcare through all this.  You will recall that they bought the old Civic Center Neighborhood Center on 2nd Street and Drinkwater from the city in what I believe was an unconstitutional no-bid deal for one-third of it’s assessed value. Eventually they’ll want to push out the two non-profit community service organizations that are still housed there in order to proceed with their high-rise construction plans.

But I digress…back to the SUSD board meeting:

The governing board consists of president Bonnie Sneed, George Jackson, Kim Hartmann (newly-elected), Barbara Perleberg, and Pam Kirby (recently re-elected).

During the meeting, Sneed, Jackson, and Hartmann lived up to their reputations as unabashed cheerleaders for Superintendent David Peterson. Sneed asked many inane, rhetorical questions designed to provide cover for Peterson and his administrators. All three praised Denny Brown as “honorable” (as if that excuses sloppy policy implementation). There were several references to how much of the district’s resources were being consumed by continuing to discuss these issues.

The three cheerleaders made multiple statements to the effect that the board shouldn’t be prolonging the discussion, as it might discourage future prospective SUSD partners. Sneed spent a lot of time looking at the clock, trying to limit discussion, and she said that the board meeting was keeping Peterson from another meeting. I still need to ask what other meeting was more important than this one.

Peterson doubled-down on a previously reported implication that Tonalea would eventually be rebuilt as a school. What he actually said–which was carefully worded–was “…WHEN [emphasis added] we rebuild the campus,” which isn’t exactly a commitment to do so.

He didn’t help his case very much by insulting concerned taxpayers with the statement, “There was a lot of misinformation spewed,” to “cause those neighbors to rally.” For a PhD, he’s not very smart about winning friends.

I also find it ironic after admitting that he asked Denny Brown to not attend this meeting, Peterson replied to at least one question with, “You’d have to ask Denny Brown.”

Speaking of Denny Brown, I think Denny’s own words from September (well before the end of his term on the SUSD governing board) speak pretty well for him:

I am working with the district to put together the SUSD Community Support Center. This will be a food, clothing and service center in South Scottsdale. We have interested partners from ICM, United Food Bank, St Mary’s Food Bank, ASU, Maricopa County and the state agency First Things First. Scottsdale Unified School District has approximately 25,000 students, of that, 7,000 kids are on free and reduced lunch. Families need my help. I am taking on the role of coordinator. I have much to do to get things in place while I’m still on the Board before my term ends in December.

I don’t think Denny dreamed this up on his own, at least not without some pretty strong notion that this was a done deal. The language in his statement (like with the ASU survey) sounds pretty darned definitive to me. Maybe you’ll interpret it differently.

At the board meeting, only Kirby and Perleberg asked questions of any real substance. Sneed, Hartmann, and Jackson did their best to constrain the discussion, to dismiss the concerns raised, and basically to sweep the whole matter under the rug. I wonder if there might be an open meeting law violation waiting in the wings. Otherwise, if there’s nothing to hide, I can’t fathom the stupidity of not airing this out in painful detail and letting concerned neighbors satisfy themselves that they haven’t been conned.

The meeting ended with no commitment from Sneed to call another meeting (and significant resistance to the idea from Jackson and Hartmann); promises from the attorney to answer the multitude of additional questions raised by information presented (but some answers only in executive session); and a standing-room-only crowd of SUSD parents and taxpayers shaking their heads.

In response to Terrance Thornton’s meeting coverage in the Scottsdale Independent yesterday afternoon (“Scottsdale School board members question Tonalea lease agreement“), one Korte shill was quick to try to deflate the issue with a dismissive comment:

Tonalea Elementary School “conspiracy” story may be running out of steam …

I guess he wasn’t at the meeting! Maybe he didn’t read Thornton’s article, either.

Or maybe he just subscribes to the Mark Twain philosophy that Bob Littlefield recently shared with me:

It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them they have been fooled.

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5 Comments

  1. Don’t forget Jennifer Petersen’s My Turn in September, 2014 suggesting that the City should work with the School District to create a community resource center at Tonalea?

  2. Before we get to the question of why or how Bonnie Sneed thought she might slide this property off to Denny Brown, let’s ask the question once again that should be at the front of all South Scottsdale parents’ list of “Things I Want To Know About Tonalea.”

    And that is this – WHY is Tonalea NOT A SCHOOL? Just because SUSD can’t run it successfully does not mean someone else won’t. SUSD leased CHOLLA to LEXIS. Why has SUSD not agreed to lease Tonalea to another Educational Institution? Charters and Privates throughout the region are hunting for locations.

    Why turn a school in to a Food Bank? Unless, of course, the real purpose was to keep Tonalea out of the hands of other parties SUSD views as competitors. IT IS NOT THE DUTY OF SUSD’s BOARD TO FEND OFF CHARTERS. IT IS THE DUTY OF SUSD’S BOARD TO SERVE THE EDUCATIONAL NEEDS OF THE COMMUNITY. And that includes leasing excess properties to other schools.

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