Higley Unified School District Superintendent Denise Birdwell donated $500 to incumbent school board president Venessa Whitener’s election campaign (click here for public record).
The donation raises ethical concerns. The board will conduct its annual evaluation of Superintendent Birdwell in November 2014, with potential for another annual pay raise. Whitener, as current board president, will lead the evaluation whether or not she gets re-elected. Dr. Birdwell just paid her evaluator, which is clearly a conflict of interest. How impartial can Whitener be after receiving such a large campaign donation?
In addition, voter confidence has been shaken in Whitener’s ability to make independent decisions for Higley schools. Whitener is widely regarded by parents and teachers as a staunch supporter of Birdwell. Whitener’s voting record speaks to her unanimous support of the superintendent. When parents approach her with concerns, instead of listening and working towards solutions, Whitener states her willingness to meet with anyone to better explain why the district is right in what they are doing. The high frustration level among district staff and students is evidenced by the numbers of families leaving district schools, the exodus of Higley’s best teachers, and the surprising turnover of school administrators. Calls from the public to conduct exit interviews for students being withdrawn and teachers resigning has yet to be answered.
Sadly, this is not the first time Dr. Birdwell has attempted to manipulate an election outcome by donating to school board candidates. An employee has recently come forward to report that during the last school board election in 2011, “Dr. Birdwell called me into her office, pulled $200 cash from her ATM envelope, put it in a pre-printed Higley Unified School District envelope, and told me to drive it to an incumbent Denise Standage’s house for her campaign. I was directed to do this during work hours.”
While clearly unethical, Birdwell is not prohibited by law from contributing to school board candidates. But the law is clear that it is illegal for her to utilize district resources to influence the outcome of an election [ARS 15-511 (A)]. The alleged incident reported from 2011 would be illegal, as it transpired during school hours on school property and utilized a district employee . It is unethical and a conflict of interest, regardless of when the transaction took place.
In regards to Birdwell’s recent contribution to Whitener on Sept. 11, 2014, it is worth noting that Whitener was present that evening at a Legislative District 12 candidate forum. Does that indicate that Birdwell’s donation to Whitener was again done during hours of school operation? Such activity, while already unethical, would then qualify as being illegal. Has Birdwell also contributed to Greg Wojtovich? Has she assisted other school board members in getting elected, beginning the reciprocity of favors?
In the incident in 2011, Birdwell-funded Denise Standage was re-elected. As Whitener has accepted the $500 donation from Birdwell, this makes for at least two current school board members in the pocket of the Superintendent, with the likelihood of more. It is time for needed change.
Higley voters, help stop the intimidation and political man-handling by the Superintendent. It’s time to say NO to unethical behavior. It’s time to return community trust in Higley Schools and to elect a board who will govern with students and the classroom as their highest priority.