Scottsdale superintendent decries 'fake news' amid AG spending investigation

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Scottsdale Unified superintendent Denise Birdwell said in a meeting on Tuesday that controversies surrounding district spending are fairy tales. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Scottsdale Unified superintendent Denise Birdwell said in a meeting on Tuesday that controversies surrounding district spending are fairy tales. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
The district awarded millions of dollars in school projects to an unlicensed architect who was previously convicted of stealing public funds. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The district awarded millions of dollars in school projects to an unlicensed architect who was previously convicted of stealing public funds. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Dr. Birdwell was somewhat ambiguous in her public comments during the meeting, but in a written statement she made it clear much of her criticism was about Monday's report. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Dr. Birdwell was somewhat ambiguous in her public comments during the meeting, but in a written statement she made it clear much of her criticism was about Monday's report. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
However, the report has done little to silence critics who say there are clear conflicts of interest in the district's procurement practices. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) However, the report has done little to silence critics who say there are clear conflicts of interest in the district's procurement practices. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
SCOTTSDALE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

Amid pressure from parents and the teachers union, Scottsdale Unified superintendent Denise Birdwell pushed back on the spending controversy surrounding her district, describing it as a "fairy tale" and "fake news."

Dr. Birdwell's comments Tuesday came as the Arizona Attorney General continues to investigate SUSD's procurement process. The district awarded millions of dollars in school projects to an unlicensed architect who was previously convicted of stealing public funds.

"We find ourselves being bullied online -- cyber attacks, personal attacks -- harassments of a district that is truly focused on learning," Birdwell said to a packed audience at Tuesday's Governing Board meeting.

"And meanwhile, we have a media that has been promoting stories that have very little merit. One might even define it as 'fake news,'" she added.

Arizona's Family reported Monday that emails suggested Birdwell had sought favors from the unlicensed architect, Brian A. Robichaux, while serving in her previous post as superintendent of Higley Unified School District.

[RELATED: Emails suggest SUSD superintendent sought favors from unlicensed architect]

Dr. Birdwell was somewhat ambiguous in her public comments during the meeting, but in a written statement she made it clear much of her criticism was about Monday's report. Her full statement appears at the end of this report.

"It seems that there has [sic] been politically motivated individuals who would like to shift the focus of the Scottsdale District away from accountability and learning. And these individuals like to take a single fact and create a fairy tale. And in that fairy tale they like to misrepresent the truth," she said.

Birdwell continued, "Well, I wanted to make a statement tonight to assure the community and the governing board that as we move forward in this critical time, we will remain focused on our students, on our employees, aligning our resources to the classroom, and teachers' pay."

The comments came shortly before the Scottsdale Education Association announced it had formally lost confidence in district leadership.

President Julie Cieniawski said 92 percent of respondents to an SEA survey conducted in December voiced “no confidence” in Dr. Birdwell and the governing board.

“The community has lost faith in district administration. I cannot imagine an override being renewed under the current management," said former SEA president Anne Hanson in written comments shared before the announcement.

An investigator hired by SUSD revealed last month that Robichaux’s firm potentially overbilled SUSD by “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” but ultimately concluded no district employees, including Dr. Birdwell, “received anything of value that would or did affect their decision to select Hunt & Caraway.”

[RELATED: Unlicensed architect overbilled Scottsdale Unified by 'hundreds of thousands,' report finds]

However, the report has done little to silence critics who say there are clear conflicts of interest in the district's procurement practices.

Said former SEA president and state House candidate Eric Kurland, "With, at best, the appearance of and, at worst, actual criminal improprieties occurring, these individuals need to step down as a matter of public trust.”

Statement from Dr. Denise Birdwell:

“There have been politically motivated individuals who would like to shift the focus of the Scottsdale District away from accountability and learning.  Scottsdale Unified School District has been aligning resources to classroom spending and teacher pay. Mr. Greenburg, interviewed in your story, has publicly stated in the past that he disagrees with SUSD personnel decisions as a result of that work and has become an outspoken critic of our District. This is yet another attempt to distract the District, but we remain laser-focused on student academic achievement.

In response to the story specifically, there was a 3-day training for the Higley Unified School District leadership in 2013. Two days were at the Higley District office and one day was at the Ritz-Carlton. That venue was chosen because the book at the core of the training was “The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the RitzCarlton Hotel Company.” District leaders studying customer service visited the hotel to see those principles in action and attend an evening and half day training.  This is a training that the Ritz-Carlton commonly provides for other public and private entities throughout the nation to improve customer service.   A number of outside businesses did help financially support employee training. It is not uncommon for community business partners to provide support for large events.

As to the other emails from that time period, I did not purchase a home or furniture but merely asked questions on someone else’s behalf.

I did not receive anything of value, or gain any personal benefit.  The complaint seems to be that I was soliciting support from business partners to benefit the Higley District and its employees.  This represents my lawful advocacy on behalf of the district, and was part of what I was hired to do. 

It’s unfortunate that your story aired on a holiday, when I was not available to provide this context.”

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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