Scottsdale Unified School Board member Jann-Michael Greenburg could be removed from office for actions he undertook last year to circumvent Arizona’s Open Meeting Law, and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office does not want taxpayer funds to be spent for Greenburg’s defense.
Those are just some of the items of relief the AGO suggests in its lawsuit filed Monday against Greenburg and SUSD for alleged OML violations in August 2021 when Greenburg -then the board president- cut off speakers during Calls to the Public and barred other speakers from discussing district-related issues even though such comments must be permitted.
Records show the AGO received several complaints last summer about how the SUSD board was conducting meeting at its members were considering a mask mandate and proposed instructional model. The district later told Assistant Attorney General Michael Catlett the board was permitted to apply content-based restrictions on Call to the Public speakers.
However, Catlett’s lawsuit asks a Maricopa County judge for a judgment that Scottsdale Unified School District and Greenburg violated the OML during the cited meetings. The AGO also seeks an order prohibiting SUSD from expending any public monies for Greenburg’s legal representation, although any civil penalty ordered upon Greenburg would be paid for from the District’s general fund.
The AGO’s lawsuit makes clear that a public body is not required to offer a Call to the Public during its meetings and hearings. But if it does, there cannot be undue restrictions on what speakers can say except that the comments must address topics falling within the public body’s jurisdiction.
“Purposefully structuring a meeting so as to apply content-based restrictions on public comments addressing an issue listed on the same agenda and discussed at the same meeting transforms the public comment session into something other than an ‘open call to the public,” according to the lawsuit, which the defendants must answer within 20 days of service.
The AGO’s legal action against Greenburg and SUSD comes just weeks after Vernal Lee Crow of Glendale was sentenced for criminal violations of the state’s Conflict of Interest law while he served as vice-chair of the Arizona School Facilities Board (ASFB)
Crow was indicted in November 2021 for four alleged violations of state law in connection with votes he took part in in 2016 and 2017 despite the decision benefited himself or a family member. He later pleaded guilty to knowingly failing to disclose his association with Red Tree Consulting and failing to recuse himself from a vote in 2016 which awarded $112,000 for a repair job at a school in the Snowflake Unified School District.
As part of the deal, Red Tree Consulting was paid $12,050 of those funds. In addition, Crow pleaded guilty to knowingly failing to disclose another conflict of interest involving Red Tree Consulting which received $42,200 from a roof construction contract approved by the ASFB in 2017 for a school within the Casa Grande Union High School District.
The Attorney General’s Office is also following a legal challenge filed by a Sierra Vista resident in February 2019 against the Cochise County board of supervisors for appointing one of the supervisors to a lucrative judicial position.
The AGO has submitted numerous briefs in the case, which is scheduled for a trial setting hearing Tuesday morning.
In the case, then-Cochise County Supervisor Pat Call was appointed to a vacancy for justice of the peace at double his county salary. Call did not cast a vote on the appointment, but he was openly involved in a decision to not seek interested applicants for the position despite the fact several were present at the meeting.
Call also took part in an executive session prior to being nominated immediately after the supervisors resumed the public portion of their meeting.
In a rare move, the Greenlee County judge hearing the case at the request of Cochise County’s presiding judge disclosed the normally secret minutes of that executive session. The judge noted “justice so demands” the release.
The Arizona Supreme Court ruled last fall that the local resident can sue Call and the other two Cochise County supervisors -Ann English and Peggy Judd- for alleged OML violations. In addition, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel wrote that as a county resident and constituent of the board of supervisors, the resident “has an interest in protecting against self-dealing by Board members.”
It is expected that any trial will not occur until early 2023. English and Judd remain on the county board, although the lawsuit seeks to have them removed from office.
Call completed his term as justice of the peace at the end of 2020. He did not run for the office in the 2020 General Election.
On Wednesday, the Arizona House approved a bill to expand open meeting law to require enough seating for anticipated attendance and that the agenda include the time when the public may have physical access to the meeting place. The vote panned out evenly along party lines: 31-28, with all Democrats opposed and all Republicans in favor of expanding open meetings.
The legislation, introduced by State Representative John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills), included a civil penalty for leaders of the public body violating the seating and access time requirements.
When addressing the House Government and Elections Committee, Kavanagh said that governing bodies should anticipate controversial issues that would cause sudden spikes in public attendance. Kavanagh cited the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) incident last year, in which the governing board closed the doors half an hour early to their meeting after enduring overwhelming public attendance the previous week. The legislator explained that he was turned away from attending the meeting because the room was full.
“This is simply meant to prevent a town council, or a school board, or anyone who has a controversial topic from suppressing public input by keeping the meeting in a tiny room so people can’t get in. And that happens,” said Kavanagh.
State Representative Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) noted that he’d experienced something similar to Kavanagh’s SUSD experience. Hoffman recounted how Higley Unified School District (HUSD) officials refused to allow public attendance beyond 20 percent room capacity, turning away individuals attempting to participate.
Committee Democrats expressed concern that governing bodies wouldn’t be able to anticipate public attendance adequately. Kavanagh said that it would be up to citizens to file open meetings complaints if they suspected government officials weren’t adhering to reasonable accommodations as directed in this bill. He noted that the League of Arizona Cities and Towns wasn’t in opposition to this bill.
Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D-Laveen) explained in his “no” vote that the bill’s intent was “noble,” but failed to spell out how government officials should anticipate public attendance to accommodate seating. State Representative Sarah Liguori (D-Phoenix) argued that limiting public access to open meetings was a matter of safety, citing the presence of COVID-19 and violence at school board meetings.
The Arizona attorney general’s office found that Litchfield Elementary School District (LESD) violated open meeting law through its Diversity Empowerment Team (DET). In some reporting, social media posts, and even LESD communications and internal documents, the DET was referred to as the “Diversity Empowerment Committee,” or “DEC.”
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Catlett wrote the letter notifying LESD of their violations. For violating open meeting law with the DET, Catlett determined that there wouldn’t be any repercussions, but it would serve to inform the attorney general’s response to any further open meetings violations. LESD was also found in violation of open meeting law for allowing and defending the behavior of one board member, Kimberly Moran, when she interrupted public commentary critical of LESD’s equity statement with a sign that read, “Not True.” Catlett informed LESD that Moran would be required to undergo further training for this violation.
Catlett said that the DET qualifies as a public body, despite insistence from LESD that it didn’t. Information about the DET wasn’t made publicly available through LESD.
“Few government responsibilities are more important than the education of children and the issue of how to education children about discrimination and race is important and complex,” wrote Catlett. “Parents and other community members should be given significant opportunity for input on school curriculum or policies that have any possibility of being viewed as ‘characteriz[ing] the United States as irredeemably racist or founded on principles of racism (as opposed to principles of equality) or that purport to ascribe character traits, values, privileges, status, or beliefs, or that assign fault, blame, or bias, to a particular race or to an individual because of his or her race.’”
LESD’s equity statement was also a product of the DET. In addition to a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, the equity statement announced that LESD pledged to antiracism.
Parents and community members also weren’t privy to DET members’ identities. In fact, the team wasn’t mentioned on LESD’s website at all. However, some parents did manage to learn the identities of DET members.
AZ Free News learned that DET members were parents Latrice Gettings, Tamillia Valuenzela, Kamaria McDonald; Palm Valley Elementary School special education teacher Brittany Austin; curriculum administrative assistant Eva Aguila; Verrado Heritage Elementary School behavior coach Grizellie Hedges; Litchfield Elementary School behavior coach Heather Maxwell; Mabel Padgett teacher Anthony Munoz; student transporter Jocelyn Zvosechz; Palm Valley Elementary School principal Jen Benjamin; Wigwam Creek Middle School assistant principal Kacie McQuarrie; Verrado Heritage Elementary School principal Meredith Noce; and LESD Title One director John Scudder.
Only one LESD governing board member was on the DET: Moran.
The parents chosen for DET have publicly shown their support for nearly all social justice beliefs, including: critical race theory, Black Lives Matter (BLM), anti-racism, transgenderism, LGBTQ+ lifestyles, ICE abolishment, and DACA continuance.
It also appears through a public post by McDonald that DET has a private Facebook page.
In addition to the DET issue, the attorney general’s office addressed the behavior of Moran at length. During LESD’s April 13 board meeting, Moran disrupted public comments criticizing the board’s equity statement by holding up a sign that read, “Not True[.]”
LESD defended Moran’s behavior, arguing that open meeting law allows board members to respond to public commentary. The attorney general’s office disagreed. They stated that the full text of the law allows board members to respond at the end of public commentary, not during. Catlett wrote that Moran’s behavior was “extremely concerning,” considering she’d just undergone open meeting law training.
“Ms. Moran’s actions violating the Open Meeting Law immediately following Open Meeting Law training are extremely concerning,” wrote Catlett. “Thus, the Office will require that Ms. Moran re-take the training received by the board during the April 13 meeting.”
The DET also had an Outside Facilitator named Amber Checky, the CEO and Founder of Inclusion Counts – a diversity training and consultation business.
Checky and the other DET members earned the ire of parents over the summer for their involvement in DET’s plans for increasing equity at LESD. These plans were published by Young America’s Foundation (YAF). The “Litchfield Elementary School District Transformational Equity Work” explained that the DEC (DET) created the following equity goals:
· Reduce disproportionality in discipline for Black students;
· Reduce disproportionality in achievement for Black and Hispanic students;
· Increase professional development for LESD staff on diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism;
· Develop a diverse and inclusive curriculum by:
· Auditing existing curriculum materials for bias to ensure multicultural perspectives;
· Ensuring teachers have cultural competence: clarity, knowledge, and agency to adapt, modify, or enhance curriculum to bring cultural awareness and diverse voices and perspectives into curriculum;
· Recruit and retain culturally competent and diverse administrators, faculty, and staff (diversity refers to race, ethnicity, gender identity, faith, ability, sexual orientation, appearance, socioeconomic class, age, and life experience).
According to the internal document, these DEC (DET) goals were the primary focus of the 2021-22 school year.
Parents objected to Checky as an outside consultant – partly because of her beliefs, and partly because they didn’t get a say in the makeup of DET. Checky and her wife, Inclusion Counts CFO and Co-Founder Heather Checky, raise their daughter as a son. This is public knowledge: Checky’s foster daughter is widely publicized. The Checkys interviewed with several news outlets in 2019 about their daughter, claiming a summer camp refused her entry because of her transgenderism.
LESD Superintendent Jodi Gunning rebuked parents for taking issue with Checky and the DET. Gunning offered a veiled threat that law enforcement would intervene if parents continued to identify and criticize members of the DET.
“It has come to my attention that the names of our staff members and volunteers who served on the Diversity Empowerment Committee (DET), as well as screen shots from their personal Facebook pages, have been posted to social media as individuals to ‘get to know.’ This even included personal information about someone’s partner and child,” wrote Gunning. “Litchfield Elementary School District denounces any attempts to intimidate or threaten. We strongly oppose personal attacks and fear tactics by anyone attempting to persuade the professional business of our public institution. We are working closely with law enforcement partners to ensure the safety of all of our stakeholders.”
The family that Gunning referenced was the Checkys.
As of press time, LESD hasn’t updated its website with public information about the DET.