By Alexander Lomax
In a shocking development last week, former Scottsdale Unified Superintendent Denise Birdwell was indicted by the Arizona Attorney General’s office on 18 felony charges related to kickbacks and fraud while in her role. It is alleged that millions of taxpayer dollars were improperly diverted to a construction firm which then rewarded her monetarily.
Perhaps the most damning part is that she retired from her Superintendent role in the Higley School District after investigations there turned up similar misdealings. She was then hired by SUSD about a year later. Did SUSD even reach out to Higley school board members to get more information on why she would retire only to want the same role across the valley a year later?
Those who have been paying close attention to this ordeal will also remember that the school board’s former CFO Laura Smith was indicted on 12 felony counts of similar financial improprieties, a case that was settled at the end of last year with a slap on the wrist.
The question that I repeatedly come back to is…how? Did anyone on the school board perform a single ounce of due diligence? Did they do such but were overruled?
Finding the right SUSD Superintendent is what could be seen as a seller’s market; between a very high salary, a destination locale, and a relative lack of issues, they could have sourced some of the best talent from around the country. What education professional wouldn’t want that role? And yet, the search went no further than 15 miles away, with someone who retired under a cloud of accusations.
This is precisely why we elect school board members; to oversee critical job searches such as this one, and to oversee those hires. Unfortunately, your average voter votes for positions like this based on sweeping proposals and high-level ideological concepts, and often is elected as a result of alignment with a political party. Telling the voters that if elected, you will do heavy due diligence isn’t exactly a winning message. Governance in the public sphere is often a factor of the relationships you wield, not necessarily your experience.
So where do we go from here? How do we prevent this from happening again? I wish I had a good answer. You can almost see the slow-motion car wreck happening now, as conservative school board activists are fixated on the “critical race theory” boogeyman that only exists in certain college curricula, and progressive activists are focused on equity policies designed to play favorites based on the color of one’s skin. Nearly no one will campaign on performing background checks and asking tough wonkish questions of key employees (except maybe in SUSD, and just for the next election).
And so it goes. Perhaps what we all need most is to look at ourselves, and ask if we’re getting distracted by the butterfly of ideology, instead of focusing on what really matters.