By JIM WALSH ,GSN Staff Writer
It may not be easy or cheap, but the East Valley Institute of Technology governing board is working on a separation agreement with suspended Superintendent Sally Downey.
Downey, a charismatic leader and a former Mesa Woman of the Year, was placed on indefinite administrative leave in January as the newly elected governing board asked for an investigation by attorney Susan Segal, an expert in education law.
Segal’s subsequent investigative uncovered a series of alleged violations of state contract and procurement laws – including a contract to supervise construction of a $33 million expansion in east Mesa – that are now being examined by the Arizona Attorney General’s office.
The Scottsdale Unified school board two years ago hired Segal to investigate that district’s financial dealings under Superintendent Denise Birdwell, who had once been Higley Unified’s top executive.
The EVIT board last week met in executive session for the stated purpose of discussing a “separation agreement” that would end Downey’s 19-year reign as the head of a district that provides career technical education to East Valley high school students.
EVIT serves more 700 Gilbert Public Schools and Higley students – the most of any of the communities that feed into the school.
The violations alleged by Segal include hiring House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, as a substitute teacher despite his lack of adequate certification and a failure to obtain bids on a contract awarded to an ex-legislator and former Tempe city council member.
With multiple investigations underway by the AG as well as the state Department of Education, the board voted 7-2 to instruct an attorney to proceed with a strategy discussed in the executive session related to the settlement agreement, the details of which remain shrouded in secrecy.
The matter may come up for another vote as early as April 8, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and perks in play.
Downey’s three-year extension on her contract was signed last year and runs through 2021 with a base salary of $188,613 annually.
Her perks include a $30,000 per year annuity contribution, a $750 monthly car allowance and a $100,000 life insurance policy.
Although EVIT normally has a low profile, it is an important institution with a wide regional presence in the East Valley, with an enrollment of 3,932 and campuses in west and east Mesa, Apache Junction and Fountain Hills.
High school students split their day between regular classes at their school and vocational classes at EVIT. The two Mesa campuses host the lion’s share of students.
Downey did not respond to a request for comment.
Shon Rasmussen, a supporter of Downey’s, said that Downey’s attorney, Michael Pruitt, is attempting to negotiate a settlement with Segal that could be approved at the next board meeting.
“She’s been totally disrespected,’’ Rasmussen said. “It will be a cloud over her legacy. She does not deserve that.’’
Rasmussen said the board has been unfair to Downey by not allowing her to respond to Segal’s charges, especially after her many years of service at EVIT.
“She has an absolute gift to get people to feel comfortable with her,’’ he said. “She has built our school through her gifts and the gifts from the community.’’
Ben Smith, a former Mesa Public Schools governing board president, said the new EVIT board pursued a plan to oust Downey immediately after the November election.
“They put her and two principals on paid leave without notice and they hired Susan Segal to find something,’’ Smith said.
Segal appears to have found plenty.
Her report shows a pattern of cutting corners on laws intended to protect taxpayers from preferential treatment and no-bid contracts.
It includes allegations of a November board meeting that was not properly posted under the state Open Meeting Law, likely rendering the board’s actions moot and requiring a new meeting on a contract to supervise the $33 million east Mesa campus expansion project. That project has not begun.
Even an extension of Downey’s previous contract – which gave her a substantial raise – was bungled because state law required the board to wait longer before extending it, Segal’s report says.
Katie Conner, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, said the portion of Segal’s report dealing with possible procurement law violations is under investigation for potential civil violations that could result in fines.
Prior to joining the law firm of Gust Rosenfeld, Segal was division chief in the Public Advocacy Section of the Arizona Attorney General’s office. She also served as section chief in the Education and Health Section. She has advised state regulatory boards, including the State Board of Education.
Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the stata Department of Education, said his agency is investigating portions of Segal’s report on teachers who were not properly certified as instructors.
“The department is doing an audit on whether the teachers are properly certified or not,’’ he said.
Preliminary findings reveal as many as 60 instances of teachers who were not properly certified, dating back to 2015, Swiat said.
He said the Department of Education is giving EVIT an opportunity to provide additional documentation to prove the teachers were certified.
A group of retirees attending last week’s board meeting said Downey was considered by some employees to have created a hostile workplace, that she harmed the careers of many well-meaning people and that the district is in desperate need of a fresh start.
Among Segal’s findings:
The board gave Downey a contract extension 26 months before it was set to expire even though state law only allows extensions of contracts 15 months before their expiration.
The extension increased Downey’s base salary from $167,643 to $174,399 and ran from July 2016 to June 2019. “Dr. Downey’s 2016-2019 contract violated the law,’’ Segal wrote.
In three separate instances, no-bid contracts were awarded for consultant work exceeding a price tag of $100,000, the limit under state before a contract is required to go out to bid.
One no-bid contract went to David Schapira, a former assistant superintendent at EVIT who left in February 2017.
Schapira, a former state legislator and Tempe council member, was paid $36,000 in fiscal year 2016-17, before his contract was renewed at the same rate. He was paid $86,000 in fiscal year 2017-18 and $43,200 in fiscal year 2018-19, for a total of $129,000 in excess of the bid limit.
Segal also found the contract with Schapira’s consulting firm was never approved by the board, in violation of state law and board policies. Schapira was an unsuccessful candidate last year for state superintendent of public instruction.
The district designated Billy DeWitt, director of facilities, to serve on a committee to select a construction at risk manager for the expansion of the East Mesa campus.
State law requires that a senior employee of a licensed contractor serve on a committee making the selection.
While DeWitt owns a construction company, his contractor’s license expired in 2008, leaving him unqualified for the position, Segal found.
Segal is consulting with the Attorney General’s Office to see if the procurement process for selecting the construction manager needs to be repeated.
Okland Construction Co. was chosen the first time and the board designated a maximum price of $33 million for the project in December.
“In all likelihood, the evaluation process that led to the award of the CMAR contract or the entire procurement process will have to be re-done,’’ Segal wrote. “Fortunately, construction on this project has not commenced.’’