The Scottsdale Unified School District says it will require an elementary school principal to return any funds she received from a $3,000 bonus after parents complained she should never have qualified for the extra money in the first place.
Pima Elementary School Principal Alexis Cruz-Freeman was one of five SUSD principals who received a bonus for having a doctorate this school year, even though Cruz-Freeman does not have the advanced degree. The bonus was on top of Cruz-Freeman’s salary of $90,243.
Cruz-Freeman did not respond to a message left at her office.
She was one of several principals hired by Dr. Denise Birdwell, the embattled superintendent the district is now attempting to fire for cause. The district has accused Birdwell of a host of legal and policy violations including conflicts of interest.
“Birdwell did favors for friends. It's very clear she did that with the top-level administrators, and it's becoming clear that she did that with folks at the school administration level as well,” said John Washington, one of the Scottsdale Unified parents who uncovered the payment discrepancy through records requests.
Arizona's Family broke the story of the overpayment on the same day a district spokesperson said SUSD leaders were "trying to find every penny they can" to give to teachers. The Governing Board voted Tuesday night to approve a 3.5 percent pay bump for teachers next year.
Records show Cruz-Freeman signed off on a supplemental contract form that lists the amount of the bonus and the reason as “Earned Doctorate.” Cruz-Freeman is in the process of earning her advanced degree but has not yet completed her dissertation and should not have received the bonus, said SUSD spokeswoman Erin Helm.
“When the school district was made aware that a stipend had been paid in error, they immediately took steps to rectify that, to ensure that any money paid so far would be paid back and that the stipend to that individual will not be paid in the future,” Helm said.
Helm said the stipend was paid in installments and Cruz-Freeman had not yet received the full amount, but she was not immediately aware of how much the principal had received. The payment period listed in the contract is from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.
Arizona’s Family called Pima Elementary and a staff member said Cruz-Freeman was in a meeting, so reporter Derek Staahl visited the school. As Staahl approached the main office, a staff member began closing the blinds.
When Staahl entered the office and asked to sign in as a visitor, an employee told him he needed to leave the premises. When Staahl asked why, the employee said the office was closed, even though it was during the school’s posted office hours and there were several parents and students in the room.
The employee then exited the office. A few minutes later, four Scottsdale police officers responded to the school.
“I think anyone that doesn't have something to hide would be glad to talk about these things, let alone wouldn't call the police,” Washington said.
Washington said the $3,000 bonus was the latest in a string of financial issues uncovered by parents – not school leaders.
“They all have qualifications that would enable them to uncover this kind of problem,” Washington said. “For us ordinary taxpayers and parents to find it, [it] really is a slap in the face to the folks on the board.”
“We put folks in place who are supposed to be solving these problems, and yet they're still going on. That's a big problem,” he said.
Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.