Phoenix Union High School District to Ignore State’s Mask Mandate Ban

Phoenix Union High School District to Ignore State’s Mask Mandate Ban

By Corinne Murdock |

Phoenix Union High School District (PXU) announced on Friday that they would ignore state law and implement a mask mandate, effective Monday – the first day of classes. PXU blamed the increased spread of the Delta variant for the restored mask mandate. The district said it would prioritize the new CDC guidance over the law.

“We teach and trust science, follow guidelines and recommendations from health experts, and use health data to drive our decisions. The science is clear that the best way to protect yourself and your family from COVID-19 and known variants is to get vaccinated,” announced PXU. “In an effort to protect our staff, students, and community, PXU has a good faith belief that the following guidance from the CDC and other health agencies regarding mitigation strategies is imperative. Therefore, Phoenix Union will begin the school year on August 2 enforcing our existing Board-adopted mask requirement of universal indoor masking only, regardless of vaccination status.”

In a subsequent interview, PXU Superintendent Chad Gestson echoed the rationale offered in the announcement letter. He asserted that science was more important than the law.

“We’ve been faced with so many challenging decisions,” said Gestson. “And I think what’s been most challenging is that we are institutions that teach science and trust science and from time to time are forced to make a decision that maybe conflicts with state law or state mandate or an executive order in order to follow science and medical guidelines. We have said from day one that we would always prioritize the health and safety of our community.”

The state ban on mask mandates was effective as of June 30, per a retroactivity clause. Ducey’s spokespersons responded in emails that PXU’s mandate was unenforceable.

Governor Ducey believes the decision by Phoenix Union requiring masks has no teeth. It’s not allowed under Arizona law. It’s unenforceable. Arizona is not anti-mask, we’re anti-mask mandate. As the governor has often said, mask usage is up to parents. If a parent wants their child to wear a mask at school, they are free to do so. This is not a state decision. Ultimately, this is about personal responsibility and parental choice – something Arizona has long-supported. School administrators should be doing everything they can to encourage eligible students and staff to get vaccinated, not break state law. Health professionals in Arizona and across the country have made it clear: our kids are safe in the classroom. We need to keep students in their classrooms, and the governor wants to ensure there are limited disruptions when it comes to their education. Arizona is not going to mandate masks in any learning environment.

On Tuesday, Ducey responded to the updated CDC guidance recommending that everyone wear masks, including fully vaccinated individuals. He reiterated that Arizona law doesn’t allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports, or any level of discrimination in schools based on vaccination status. Ducey called the CDC’s updated guidance an example of the Biden Administration’s failure in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Public heatlh officials in Arizona and across the country have made it clear that the best protection against COVID-19 is the vaccine,” asserted Ducey. “Today’s announcement by the CDC will unfortunately only diminish confidence in the vaccine and create more challenges for public health officials – people who have worked tirelessly to increase vaccination rates.”

Ducey has yet to issue a formal statement on PXU’s mask mandate.

Corinne Murdock is a contributing reporter for AZ Free News. In her free time, she works on her books and podcasts. Follow her on Twitter, @CorinneMurdock or email tips to corinnejournalist@gmail.com

Surprise, Surprise! The Higley School District Scandal Has Been Largely Ignored by the Media

Surprise, Surprise! The Higley School District Scandal Has Been Largely Ignored by the Media

By the Free Enterprise Club |

Sometimes, it’s not just what the media says. It’s what they don’t say.

Last week, the Arizona Auditor General concluded its financial investigation into Higley Unified School District (HUSD). And the findings of the report are mind blowing.

The Auditor General found that HUSD’s former superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell, may have conspired with employees of Education Facilities Development Services (EFDS), along with Hunt & Caraway’s former president, to circumvent school district procurement rules to improperly award Higley’s $2,557,125 Project development services contract to EFDS.

But if you thought that was bad, there’s more. The report also alleges that Dr. Birdwell misused public monies when she authorized or caused the unlawful use of $6 million in restricted public funds toward construction of two new schools. And to top it all off, Dr. Birdwell, along with Gary Aller and Steven Nielsen from EFDS, appear to have concealed their wrongdoing by certifying false information on Higley records.

A State Grand Jury indicted Dr. Birdwell on 18 felony counts. In addition, Gary Aller, Steven Nielsen, and Kay Hartwell Hunnicutt (who shared a home and checking account with Dr. Birdwell) were indicted on three felony counts each…

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What Are School Districts Trying To Hide?

What Are School Districts Trying To Hide?

By the Goldwater Institute |

The public’s business should be open to the public. And under Rhode Island law, it is. Yet when mom Nicole Solas sought to attend the meeting of a publicly funded committee that meets weekly to discuss and make recommendations on policies that apply across her daughter’s school district, she was told that the meeting was closed and parents were not welcome.

Now, the Goldwater Institute is pushing back: We’ve joined with the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights in Rhode Island to represent Nicole in a complaint before the state attorney general asserting that the school district has violated Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) by closing these meetings to the public.  

Rhode Island’s OMA was enacted to ensure that “public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.” The presumption under that law is always in favor of public access.

Yet in March 2021, the South Kingstown School Committee signed an agreement with the South Kingstown BIPOC Advisory Board to hold weekly meetings where district policies ranging from student discipline to coaching to hiring would be discussed and where recommendations would be made on those issues by the Board to the School Committee. In other words, the Board was charged with advisory power by the School Committee over matters of significant public interest—the education of South Kingstown’s youth. The Board is also publicly funded with taxpayer dollars by the School Committee, and two members of the School Committee’s subcommittee on policy sit on the Board.

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Arizona’s Congressional Delegation Urged To Protect Charter School Students

Arizona’s Congressional Delegation Urged To Protect Charter School Students

PHOENIX, AZ — Governor Doug Ducey urged Arizona’s Congressional Delegation to oppose federal legislation that will jeopardize critical funding the state’s public charter schools receive and put thousands of students at risk.

“I am writing to bring your attention to a hugely problematic section of the Fiscal Year 2022 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Funding Bill. Section 314 of this legislation could have catastrophic effects on public charter schools in Arizona and throughout the nation,” Ducey wrote to Arizona’s two U.S. Senators and nine U.S. Representatives.

The legislation singles out public charter schools and threatens them with the potential loss of all of their federal funds if they contract with private companies for any services, with language stating: None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be awarded to a charter school that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.

“This means that many of Arizona’s more than 230,000 public charter school students could be at risk of their school shutting down,” Governor Ducey states in the letter. “They educate over 21% of all public K-12 students in Arizona, the highest percentage in the country. It is unthinkable that support for public charter schools could be put at risk at all, much less as we are emerging from over a year’s worth of academic disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Arizona Charter Schools Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and members of the Arizona State Legislature have also voiced concerns regarding Section 314 of the Fiscal Year 2022 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Funding Bill.

Investigation Found Internal Controls Failed At Higley School District Due To Superintendent’s Misconduct

Investigation Found Internal Controls Failed At Higley School District Due To Superintendent’s Misconduct

By Terri Jo Neff |

An investigation by the Arizona Auditor General has led to criminal charges being filed earlier this month against several people involved with the building of two new schools for the Higley Unified School District in Gilbert, including the district’s former superintendent, it was announced late Thursday.

Angela Denise Birdwell was indicted July 13 by a state grand jury for 18 counts related to procurement fraud, misuse of public monies, fraudulent schemes and practices, conflict of interest, filing a false state tax return, fraudulent schemes and artifices, and conspiracy. She served as Higley’s superintendent from 2009 until her retirement in 2015.

“Public officials with oversight authority have a responsibility to properly manage the administration of money and property entrusted to them and must ensure that sufficient internal controls are designed and implemented to protect those assets,” according to the Auditor General’s report. “Nevertheless, a system of internal controls will not succeed when those in a position to oversee those operations are perpetrating unlawful behavior and concealing their misconduct.”

Among the more serious issues identified by the Auditor General was Birdwell’s possible misuse of public monies from December 2012 to November 2013 when she authorized or caused the unlawful use of $6 million in restricted public funds toward construction of two new schools in the Higley district, which serves about 10,000 PK-12 students.

Also indicted were Gary Aller and Steven Nielsen, both corporate officers of Educational Facilities Development Services (EFDS) which was awarded a $2.5 million project development service contract related to construction of the new schools. Investigators believe EFDS had access to “early and exclusive Project information” which provided the company an advantage over other prospective vendors.

Public records show Aller and Nielsen founded EFDS in 2012 just two weeks before the Higley District issued an RFP for project development services. The men are each charged with three felonies related to fraudulent schemes and practices, conspiracy, and fraudulent schemes and artifices. There is also an allegation Birdwell violated state procurement laws in connection to the EFDS contract.

“Dr. Birdwell was 1 of 3 selection committee members, and she evaluated EFDS with the only perfect score and recommended Higley award EFDS the Project development services contract, which the Higley Governing Board approved on July 12, 2012,” the report states.

Meanwhile, three felonies related to filing of a false state tax return were brought by the state grand jury against Kay Hartwell Hunnicutt, an attorney described in the Auditor General’s report as being a “close acquaintance” of Birdwell, with whom she shared a home as well as a checking account.

According to the Auditor General, Birdwell indirectly received or benefited from $43,000 paid by Hunt & Caraway Architects Ltd., which served as the district’s procurement advisor and was part of the EFDS development team. Hunt & Caraway, whose now deceased president was never registered in Arizona as an architect, issued checks to Hunnicutt or Hunnicutt’s law office, which were then deposited in a checking account held jointly by Birdwell and Hunnicutt.

Concerns have been rife for years about misconduct related to the school construction projects, according to State Rep. Jake Hoffman (R-LD12), who served as a Higley district board member from 2013 to 2015. Hoffman says he and another board member were criticized by Higley district administrators in response their attempts to look into concerns at the time.

“The level of apparent corruption is staggering and heartbreaking. 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,” Hoffman said, adding that he plans to use the Auditor General’s findings to push for education reform during next year’s legislative session.

After retiring from Higley, Birdwell received eight checks totaling $57,000 from Hunt & Caraway before she was hired in 2016 by the Scottsdale Unified School District as its superintendent through June 2019.

The memo section on two of the Hunt & Caraway checks referred to “consulting” but the company failed to provide investigators any documents supporting the purposes of the checks.

But Birdwell’s time at SUSD was cut short, when she was given a $150,000 contract buyout in April 2018 after district officials alleged she failed to disclose a “substantial, personal interest” with Hunt & Caraway, which billed the Scottsdale District for nearly $2 million after Birdwell became its superintendent.

Birdwell is accused of not claiming the payments as income on her state income tax returns.

Court dates have not been announced for the four defendants who will stand trial in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Parents Must Not Drop Their Guard After Scottsdale’s Apology For Inadvertent Inclusion Of Intrusive Questions

Parents Must Not Drop Their Guard After Scottsdale’s Apology For Inadvertent Inclusion Of Intrusive Questions

By Loretta Hunnicutt |

After vigilant parents sounded the alarm about a consent form they were asked to sign electronically that would have asked their children highly personal questions, Scottsdale Unified School District leadership apologized.

The District’s leadership advised parents that they would not be asked to authorize the District to “complete an emotional health and wellness screening of my child and to collect personal information, medical history or medical information, mental health history or mental health information, and quality of home and interpersonal relationships, student biometric information, or illegal, antisocial or self-incriminating behavior critical appraisal of individuals within a close relationship and gun/ammunition ownership.

The District claims those issues were mentioned inadvertently in a portion of students’ annual verification packet:

On May 4, 2021, Scottsdale Unified School District’s (SUSD) administration recommended that the Governing Board approve the FastBridge program as a social emotional learning screener for students in Kindergarten through 12th grades. It was already being used as an academic screener for grades K through 3.

This social emotional screening program, which the Board voted to adopt, is used to evaluate students overall general behavior including but not limited to, social, academic and emotional behavior. Screening is typically completed within three minutes, with results available immediately to parents and staff. These findings enable our teachers, social worker and guidance counselor professionals to help identify students who may be in need of additional support and intervention programs and to make that support available as early as possible.

The screening tool is optional and one that parents have a choice to authorize for use with their children each school year.

Notwithstanding this, SUSD’s initial parent acknowledgment form incorrectly stated that the FastBridge screener might ask for personal information about income family matters, medical or family medical history, mental health history and other categories of private information.

To be clear, the FastBridge screener does not and has never sought this information. The waiver form that initially appeared in ParentVUE as part of the parents’ annual acknowledgment was a standard waiver form that had not yet been properly tailored to SUSD’s use. The form has since been amended to reflect the information that is actually collected. We apologize for this oversight and offer our services that SUSD does not support, endorse or collect any family personal information through FastBridge.

Leadership goes on to claim that Scottsdale parents “have stressed to us how important it is for schools to support their students social emotional learning.”

“Our sole goal in acquiring FastBridge,” wrote leadership, “is to be able to support the whole child and offer help to students sooner when we see that academic and behavioral issues in the classroom are limiting their opportunities to learn and grow.”

This “apology” raises too many questions and red flags. From the implication that a child’s social emotional well-being can be assessed in three minutes, to the claim that leadership is responding to parents’ pleas that the schools support their students’ social emotional learning, the missive misses the mark for any discerning reader.

Any educator who believes that they can assess a child in any meaningful way in three minutes is misguided at best and likely committing educational malpractice at worst.

The fact that our schools continue to cater to the fear-mongering teachers’ unions, thus strongly encouraging masks and vaccines for students K-8, clearly shows that they have put the students’ social and emotional well-being far down their list of priorities.

While the apology is appreciated by many parents, I fear that it will prompt them to drop their guard and not look carefully at the other consent forms they are asked to sign. There is also the danger that parents might assume that their children are not turning over this information in their classrooms at all when nothing could be further from the truth.

Parents need to be on guard at all times, and at all times they must assume that their children are products – the data they produce, the insights they give, the very supplies they prefer to bring to school are all of value to those who benefit – in one way or another – from the education industrial complex.