After an investigation by the Arizona Auditor General into alleged financial mismanagement at Higley Unified School District in Gilbert, a grand jury indicted four people for fraud. Dr. Denise Birdwell, a former superintendent of both Higley and Scottsdale Unified School Districts, was indicted on 18 felony counts related to reportedly misusing $6 million of public monies, including conspiring to get around school district rules in order to make sure Higley’s $2,557,125 contract went to a certain vendor. Birdwell’s domestic partner, Hartwell Hunnicutt, and two men from the vendor, Gary Aller and Steven Nielsen, were indicted on related felonies.
State Rep. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek), who served on the Higley school board from 2013-2015 while much of this took place under Birdwell, said he was attacked and stonewalled by district administrators as he and another board member fought to get to the bottom of serious concerns and suspicions that many people had at the time.
“I am proud to have actively fought against this abuse of power, misuse of taxpayer monies, and blatant disregard for the law during my tenure on the Higley governing board,” he said. “As a result of these findings, I will be looking at opportunities for education reform legislation to introduce next session in order to ensure that crooked administrators stop bleeding our schools of their resources and start putting students and teachers first.”
The four’s actions centered around the process of having two new middle schools built in 2012. The Arizona Auditor General’s Office (AAGO) issued a report detailing its findings on July 22, which it sent to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. In it, the auditor stated that staffers under Birdwell, possibly at her instruction, provided key information about the middle school project to one of the bidders, Educational Facilities Development Services, LLC, which they did not supply to other bidders. EFDS was also allowed to influence the Request for Proposals. EFDS was incorporated only 14 days before the district issued its request for proposals.
According to the AAGO, Birdwell, Aller, and Nielsen made false attestations on Higley records about the project when they stated they complied with procurement rules. Birdwell is accused of violating the public monies statute by circumventing the will of the voters and directing $6 million from a restricted fund for the project. That fund, the adjacent ways fund, is required by state law to be used to improve public lands next to school property.
AAGO accused Birdwell of violating conflict-of-interest laws by failing to disclose that she received payments through Hunnicutt related to the deal: $43,000 indirectly from Hunt & Caraway, $1,000 from Hunt & Caraway’s former president’s personal checking account, and $2,500 from CORE Construction, a Higley vendor that was also part of EFDS’ development team. The payments were often marked for consulting services, but were unsupported with contracts or invoices. Birdwell failed to disclose that she participated in decisions related to their services or her substantial interest. Both women were indicted on three felony counts for not disclosing the income on their state tax returns.
According to an unnamed source who saw some of the contracts in question, the contracts to build the two middle schools totaled about $150 million. At the time, the cost to build a middle school in the area was around $20 million. “They were the most expensive middle schools in Arizona’s history,” the source said.
Birdwell was hired by Scottsdale Unified in 2016 as superintendent but left that position in 2018 after an investigation into financial improprieties in that district, according to SUSD board minutes. A clause in her contract required the district to pay her $150,000 to resign. According to KJZZ, the district’s attorney explained that going through the process of firing her could take months and might cost more.
Hoffman was disappointed with the outcome. “I find it disgusting that any public employee would be given a golden parachute at the expense of the taxpayers,” he said. “This is yet another glaring example of why reforms must be made to reign in the largesse and abuses of power that have become unfortunately common among district administrators. Arizona must have an educational system that puts students, families, and teachers first.”
Brian Robichaux – who passed away recently – was the former president of Hunt & Caraway Architects. He was implicated in the report but was not indicted.
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