The Scottsdale Unified School District board hired Jeff Gadd as interim chief financial officer in late June, two weeks after the district’s former CFO pleaded not guilty to 11 charges involving conflicts of interest and fraud.

Gadd has overseen finances in a number of Phoenix-area school districts, including Gilbert Public Schools, Roosevelt School District, Washington  Elementary, Glendale Elementary and Dysart Unified.

The leadership change is the latest move in the district, of some 24,000 students, which fell into controversy last year when parents initially concerned about a school renovation project began raising questions about district finances, bidding practices, conflicts of interest and cronyism.

The board eventually ousted former Superintendent Denise Birdwell, former CFO Laura Smith and other administrators earlier this year.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office launched a civil and criminal investigation into Scottsdale schools in December. Both cases are ongoing.

Meanwhile, the school board has named interim leaders such as Gadd and acting Superintendent John Kriekard, who was hired in May. 

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So what’s next?

Restoring trust, Kriekard said.

The 40-year educator spent 23 years in Scottsdale as a principal and assistant superintendent. He then served as superintendent of Paradise Valley Unified School District from 2003 to 2009.

Kriekard said he came out of retirement to help his old district through a controversial time.

A resident who spoke with The Arizona Republic is pleased with the choice. 

“He had a good reputation while he was here with parents and professional staff,” district parent Dan Drake said.

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Scottsdale resident Dan Drake expresses frustration with Scottsdale schools’ deal with Superintendent Denise Birdwell.

The search for a permanent school chief

The board has sought proposals from search firms to help find a permanent superintendent, but nofirm has yet been hired. District officials hope to have a permanent school chief in place for the 2019-20 school year, according to the district’s website. 

Board President Barbara Perleberg did not respond to The Republic’s repeated requests for comment.

Superintendent searches can range anywhere from 12-14 weeks, depending on the needs of the district, according to Steve Highlen, an executive search consultant with the Arizona School Boards Association.

“It can be longer, it can be shorter, but if you make it too short, you cut down on all the things you can do because it takes time to develop and accomplish everything,” he said.

Residents have said they want to be involved in selecting a permanent leader. At a rally in February, they called for a committee of teachers, administrators, board members and community leaders to oversee the recommendation of a new superintendent.

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Drake said the selection process will be important. “The problem this board has had is that they seem to charge off in a given direction and hope that everybody else can catch up and hope that everybody else likes what they’ve done.

“Quite frankly that hasn’t been the case,” he said.

A culture change

The board initially offered Kriekard a $64,000 contract that runs May 14 through Sept. 13, but he said he hopes to remain through next school year.

“That decision will be up to the board ultimately,” Kriekard said.

Gadd’s $31,510 contract runs July 1-Sept. 13. 

Kriekard said part of the reason he returned to Scottsdale is to institute a culture change in the embattled district.

“It’s a matter of bringing what I believe is my style to the district in an attempt to help move the district forward from this past spring,” he said.

The first change is a new conflict of interest policy presented to the board last month.

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Scottsdale resident Dan Drake responds to Scottsdale Unified School District’s conflict-of-interest investigation.
Michael Chow/The Republic

The proposal would require every district employee to file a conflict of interest disclosure form when hired. If an employee is made aware of a new conflict, they would be required to disclose it within 15 days.

The board is expected to have a second read of the policy in August. 

“We discovered we were not as strict or clear as we needed to be, but we’re looking at all policies from that kind of angle,” Kriekard said.

Kriekard said he hopes to bring a sense of calm to the district so that the business of education can continue.

“The bottom line continues to be education of the young people,” he said. “We make decisions that are in the best interests of students and the teaching environment and that helps calms things down so that people and staff are not reading about the school district in a negative sense.”

Reach reporter Lorraine Longhi at 480-243-4086 or llonghi@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @lolonghi.

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