Scottsdale Unified approves $180K in severance agreements for embattled administrators

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The elected board of the Scottsdale Unified School District approved severance agreements totaling $180,000 with its embattled superintendent and chief operations officer Friday, despite protests from parents and teachers who wanted to see the administrators fired.

The board voted 4-1 to approve the settlements with Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell and COO Louis Hartwell that will end their employment and prevent either side from suing each other in the future.

In a roll call vote, the majority of board members cited the potential costs of pursuing a termination case, which an attorney for the district said could span months. Some board members fought back tears as they explained their votes.

"I've learned that justice comes in many forms, and not always the ones that feel the best," said board member Allyson Beckham. 

Pam Kirby cast the lone dissenting vote, saying she could not support the agreements because of the claims waivers, which were added at the request of the attorney representing the administrators.

"Our position is that the economics justify the settlement," said Joel Sannes, an attorney for the district. "It's hard to see an economic resolution that's better than these settlements."

Under the agreement, Birdwell will receive $150,000. Hartwell will receive $30,000. In exchange for the payment, the administrators agreed to resign April 12. 

Before the meeting, parents and teachers described the settlements as "pay-offs." Several protesters held signs outside with phrases like "No Cash 4 Criminals" and "We Are Watching."

"Money will go into the pockets of people who are subject to investigations both in the district and outside," said teacher Bert te Velde. 

"Those are the students that we're now teaching with these kinds of examples?" he added. "Basically we're giving them the example of corruption?"

The Arizona Attorney General's Office confirmed in February it has an open criminal investigation involving the district, but no criminal charges have been filed. In March, the district announced it would attempt to terminate Birdwell and Hartwell for cause, and unveiled a lengthy list of legal and policy violations in a procedural document called a "statement of charges."

Among the list of violations, the district accused Birdwell of accepting $30,000 in payments from an unlicensed architect she later hired.

[RELATED: Felon issued checks to Scottsdale superintendent; district moves to fire her]

"I think it's unconscionable with all of the charges brought forth against this administration and these two individuals for a penny to be spent on paying them off to leave," said Ian Stephan, a teacher and vice president of the Scottsdale Education Association. 

Sannes, the attorney for the district, laid out in detail the potential fiscal impact of pursuing a termination case against the administrators. He said the cases could take between two and three months. During that time, the district would be required by law to continue paying the administrators.

Sannes projected Birdwell could collect between $69,000 and $120,000 in salary and benefits during that time. He said Hartwell could use a delay strategy to receive the remaining $57,602 he is owed through June. On top of those expenses, the district would also have to foot legal fees and other costs, which he estimated could range from $45,000 to $60,000 for the two cases.

After the meeting, Dan Drake, an SUSD parent who has closely followed the district's scandals, said he understood the rationale for the board's vote but still felt unsatisfied.

"It's hard to say this is justice for the teachers," he said. "It's hard to say this is justice for the community."

"As we lawyers like to say, there's no justice in court. There's no justice out of court," he added.  

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