Scottsdale Arts Playing Musical Chairs

The new head of Scottsdale Arts, Gerd Wuestemann, started work four weeks ago.

Three managers at Scottsdale Arts, Sara Cochran, Kathy Joyce and Stephen Baker, were fired two weeks ago.

Today, many in the arts community remain baffled how, after only two weeks on the job, Wuestemann could have so quickly evaluated the performances of Cochran, Joyce and Baker - and then, without warning, dumped them.

Unless, of course, he was only doing someone else's dirty work.

The organization didn't make a peep in public about the firings. No news release. No burying the news in one of the cheerful updates about how well things were going at Scottsdale Arts from the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Kathy Wills. No nothing.  Except for an email from Wuestemann assuring employees that things couldn't be better.

Dr. Wuestemann, a seasoned arts administrator who came here from LaFayette, Louisiana, wrote: "We are fortunate to have developed a clear path forward, enabling us to empower some of Scottsdale Arts' existing team members."

Hold your horses, Dr. W.

Sara Cochran was the Director and Curator of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA).  Kathy Joyce was Director of Development.  Stephen Baker was Director of Marketing.  Their hasty and simultaneous departure has left the organization playing a game of musical chairs ... although no one will admit it.

Judge for yourself:

A former SMoCA curator returns to assume the role of acting director of the museum. The organization is now in the process of hiring a new curator for SMoCA.  For the time being, a member of the senior staff is leading the Development Department.  The need for a new team leader is being evaluated.  The Marketing Department is currently being guided by the department's senior staff.  A new managing director of Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is expected to be named in the near future.

It's unclear if Wuestemann had any clue about what he was walking into or the deed he would be told to carry out during his first two weeks on the job.    

Depending on different people's perspectives, Scottsdale Arts is either in transition or turmoil.  Whatever the case, the organization is suffering through another period of instability - which, at Scottsdale Arts, is called "business as usual."

The names may change, including the CEO and department heads, and employees shuffled from one position to another -- but many of the same problems still persist.  That would tell most organizations they had serious internal issues embedded in their culture.  However, Scottsdale Arts isn't like most organizations.

The most critical thing that hasn't changed at Scottsdale Arts is the series of poor decisions and the people responsible for making them.

SUSD May Never Be The Same

Denise Birdwell is leaving people with a terrible taste - particularly those who are now being forced to eat crow.

With each revelation and news report, it is becoming increasingly impossible for long-time Birdwell backers to continue denying her role in a scheme of deception and backchannel dealings. It's difficult to say exactly what took them so long to come around ... or what the tipping points have been for each of those steadfast supporters of the superintendent.

But better late than never.

There are those who want to treat the past year as an aberration - so they would just as soon move on and not dwell on the destruction created by the Birdwell administration. Unfortunately, it's impossible to ignore the collateral damage.

Under just about any other circumstances, school district decision makers would be advocating placing a budget override on the November election ballot. Thanks to all the shenanigans during 2017, that possibility is now remote. It would be a fool's errand. After all, who still trusts the SUSD School Board with taxpayer dollars?

Even if the School Board decides to go for broke and stage an override election, there's no one left to run the campaign. The "Yes To Children" organization, the grassroots group responsible for victories on behalf of SUSD at the polls the last two elections, has disbanded. Understandably, volunteers felt betrayed by how Birdwell and the School Board were mishandling the $228 million in bond funds voters approved in 2016.

There is, by the way, serious skepticism about how the bond funds are currently being appropriated by the new acting superintendent and the new acting chief operating officer - because both, who were hired by Birdwell, are thought to have questionable qualifications for executing the bond program.

The full extent of the damage probably won't be known for months. That's when the district will be able to accurately measure student enrollment totals for the new school year. The same holds true for the district's workforce, including teachers, who have just filed a notice of claim against SUSD alleging breach of contract.  

There's no debating that the school district's brand is suffering and a rebranding campaign is required. But that can't happen until all members of the School Board are replaced. Barring resignations and incumbents choosing not to run for re-election, it could take two election cycles for the current board to be swapped out with people who haven't been politically corrupted.

Notwithstanding the electability of current School Board candidates Patty Beckman, Mike Peabody and Jann-Michael Greenburg, SUSD will likely struggle to regain its statewide status any time soon. For instance ... even if two of the challengers replace Pam Kirby and Kim Hartmann this November, three board members (Barbara Perleberg, Sandy Kravetz and Allyson Beckham) will still remain and can rule the roost until 2020.

Then there's the matter of hiring a permanent superintendent to replace acting Superintendent Amy Fuller -- not to mention replacing some of the shady characters Denise Birdwell found to fill SUSD positions to perpetuate her policies and prolong her inevitable demise.

It will take years to repair the damage and restore trust in SUSD.

Bad News Usually Travels Fast

Except in Scottsdale.

In fact, if it isn't good news, most of us would rather not hear it - especially if it means being able to avoid harsh realities.


This year's Chamber of Commerce's Scottsdale Forward was called "A Path for Progress and Economic Development." As usual, the annual event was reminiscent of a pep rally. Speakers, mostly plucked from the business community, agreed things couldn't be better.

If there's one thing we're good at in Scottsdale, it's bragging about our city - and how much better Scottsdale is than just about anywhere else.

Attendees got to hear that marquee events like Spring Training, the Waste Management Open and the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction are all setting attendance records. Rachel Sacco of Experience Scottsdale said the city's hotel growth is out-pacing the entire country's hotel industry. WestWorld is going great guns, according to Carter Unger, the late Fred Unger's son. He said the facility is operating at 95% efficiency.

City Manager Jim Thompson got into the action, too. He updated the group on Jerry Colangelo's mixed-use development coming to the nearly 30-acre Cracker Jax site on North Scottsdale Road. More hotels are also on the way in Old Town, as is a large retail-residential project in the Loloma area. 

But then, with a hint of reluctance and the risk of being a party pooper, Thompson told the audience that there was an 800lb gorilla. Actually a $800 million one. That's the amount necessary to address the city's infrastructure needs, which, Thompson explained, would require bonds that must be approved by voters.

If the results of the last three bond elections are an indicator, passing bonds will be difficult. Combining bond elections in 2010, 2013 and 2015, there were a total of 12 measures. Only two measures, road improvements and the construction of fire stations, passed. Both were approved in 2015. In 2010, the total bond package was $63 million. In 2013, it was $212 million. And in 2015 it was $96 million. If the City Council places a bond election on the November ballot, don't expect the bond package to be $800 million. The Council knows better.

It's important that taxpayers don't suffer sticker shock.

Next week councilmembers will engage in a work-study session on the infrastructure issue -- some of which will be about replacing old infrastructure and some of which will be about creating new infrastructure. The discussion is expected to be guided by the recommendations of the Capital Improvement Plan Subcommittee that's comprised of councilmembers Guy Phillips, Virginia Korte and David Smith.

The work-study session begins at 4PM Tuesday in the Kiva.

SUSD Needs A Political Exorcism

A variety of terms are being used to describe Denise Birdwell.

As emails are reviewed and events reconstructed from the past year, it's difficult to find anything good to say about the superintendent who has been placed on administrative leave by the SUSD School Board.

Birdwell is being called Machiavellian and mean-spirited.  Some say she's a master manipulator. Others are convinced she's a narcissist with strong tendencies toward penis envy.

It also sounds like Denise Birdwell isn't afraid to dabble on the dark side.  

Governing Board members had no choice but to finally place her on leave.   While that should have happened months go, Birdwell is now one step closer to being gone for good.  It's only a matter of time.  

No matter how quickly the board musters up the courage to officially cut ties with Birdwell, the damage to the school district has already been done.  In just the short span of a year, the public has totally lost trust in the five-member school board - especially President Barbara Perleberg, Vice President Kim Hartmann and Pam Kirby, who have been the architects of the cover-up of corruption.

The control Birdwell had over the elected members of the School Board - including newcomers Allyson Beckham and Sandy Kravetz - has been remarkable.  It's as though they have been possessed.  When looking back on this period in which SUSD's reputation was systematically destroyed, the five board members will probably conclude:  "The devil made us do it."

That's why there needs to be a political exorcism.

There has been a community outcry for the members of the board to resign. But don't count on it.  These are five women who have refused to take any responsibility whatsoever for the havoc they have helped create. Time after time they have denied that their decisions have either directly caused or contributed to horrible hiring choices and poor policies.  For them, resignation will not be the better part of valor.
Remember that this saga started when the School Board hired Denise Birdwell without interviewing any other candidates ... and the crooks and con men naturally followed.  Whatever happens from here, these board members can't be trusted to hire a new superintendent.

Hartmann and Kirby, whose terms on the board expire this year, are keeping their options open.  Both have taken the initial step to run for re-election by taking out the necessary documents.  In order to run again, they would need to file nominating petitions.  They would then have until early August to submit them to qualify for the November ballot.  

If they decide to enter the race for another four-year term, it will mean their extra-large egos have made them even more delusional than most people already believe.

For now, "interim" is the term being most frequently used in SUSD.  The school district has an interim chief financial officer, an interim chief operating officer  ... and soon there will be an interim superintendent.  Because of the vacuum of leadership on the School Board, it will be the interim leadership team that will be responsible for restoring order in the school district by getting the $229 million bond program back on track.

That will at least start the process of purging the demons that are plaguing SUSD.