As interim superintendent for the Higley Unified School District, Denise Birdwell is working on getting in touch with the community.
She’s in the process of moving to Chandler from her West Valley home in Litchfield Park.
She plans to become involved in more communitywide events, such as homeowners association meetings, town of Gilbert events and school activities. She believes the best way to meet people is face to face.
“My technical duties are the management and operations of the district, but I’m also responsible for developing relationships within the community,” said Birdwell, 47. “I want to be committed to the community and want to be flexible in my schedule (to attend events).”
Birdwell is putting together a superintendent parent advisory council with parents from every school that would start meeting in the fall. She has already put together a student advisory council with about 18 students.
On Wednesday, Birdwell held two meetings with parents involved in district site councils, parent-teacher organizations and booster clubs.
Working on her community involvement is just one of the ways Birdwell has thrown herself into the interim superintendent position. She moved into the top district job as a temporary replacement for Joyce Lutrey, who received a one-year early release from her contract Dec. 18.
Birdwell will continue as the interim superintendent until June 30 and received a $6,000 stipend on top of her salary for her extra work.
The Higley governing board decided Thursday to begin negotiations with Birdwell to extend her contract beyond June 30, possibly for another year or until the end of December.
“I’m here as long as the community and governing board want me here,” Birdwell said. “I want to stay here. I believe they’ll see we share a passion for quality education.”
Meanwhile, during this limbo period, Birdwell said her focus is on the students.
“Let’s stay focused and make sure we move forward,” Birdwell said. “I’m confident that the board will make the best choice.”
Birdwell was hired by Higley on July 1, 2007 as an assistant superintendent of human resources.
Her time with the district has not been without controversy.
Last February, the district created an associate superintendent position for Birdwell, combining human resources and curriculum to keep her in the district. Birdwell had been offered a superintendent job in a school district in Casper, Wyo.
The board approved the new position despite board member Kim Anderson saying the timing and the way Birdwell’s new position was formed was a “desperate” reaction, a quick fix and wasn’t thought out.
That decision was made a couple days after Birdwell reassigned bus driver Kim Sullivan, who was involved in a nationally publicized scuffle with a Williams Field High School student. Birdwell stood behind Sullivan’s actions in the bus ordeal, and Sullivan was returned to her bus driver job after police determined she would not be charged in the incident.
In May, Birdwell stood behind her choice of Kathleen Hughes as principal of Higley Elementary and Middle School after parents had concerns she was not the right person for the job and questioned the hiring process.
The board ultimately approved Hughes’ appointment. But Birdwell told the board that, as a new human resources director, she may have made errors in the hiring process.
Despite the controversies, Birdwell has the backing of many parents and teachers.
Michelle Rigby, who formed a parent group called Change in HUSD which asked for Lutrey’s resignation in May, said Birdwell is “fabulous” and has nothing bad to say about her. As the former PTO president of Gateway Pointe Elementary School, Rigby attended the noon meeting Wednesday with Birdwell and other parents.
Rigby said she is hopeful of what Birdwell offers for the district and that Birdwell is “totally” committed to involving the community in district decisions.
“I like that she’s involved with students and parents and the community, instead of taking control and going with it,” Rigby said. “She wants to hear from the community on what programs we can afford to cut (with the impending state budget cuts). She is passionate about her work and about the district and wants to see us be successful. She is fabulous.”
Dan Lawrence, president of the Higley Education Association, said although he had a “great” relationship with Lutrey, the employee group also enjoys working with Birdwell.
“In terms of honesty and integrity, she’s been fine,” said Lawrence, a social studies teacher at Higley High School. “Birdwell has a difference in philosophy. Her background is different and she has more experience in grades 7-12.”
He added, “Arizona is pretty unique, and with our current economic situation, having expertise in Arizona (education) could be a real advantage. She has a lot of experience (in the state) and our relationship has been very positive.”
Birdwell has more than 25 years experience in education. She has lived and worked in the state since 1987.
Before moving to the Higley district, Birdwell worked for three years as an assistant superintendent for secondary programs in the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise.
Before that, she worked in the Paradise Valley Unified School District for eight years. She was a principal and an assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at Paradise Valley High School, both for four years.
Birdwell has also been an athletic director for two years at Buckeye Union High School and a district auditorium manager for four years at Round Valley School District in Springerville.
She received her doctorate degree in educational administration and supervision from Arizona State University in December 2005. Her dissertation was on “Student achievement in relation to four factors in a district experiencing hyper-growth.”
Higley has seen its own hyper-growth. In the 2000-2001 school year, Higley had 894 students. This school year, the district has grown to about 9,030 students.
Besides working in the Higley district, Birdwell also is an adjunct professor at Northern Arizona University and ASU.
“I thoroughly enjoy teaching. I enjoy preparing the next generation of administrators,” Birdwell said. “When you can get up every morning and change a life, that’s what teaching is. That’s why I love it.”
In the Higley district, Birdwell has said she’s assured accountability from human resources to finance.
She hired a financial consultant for $48,000, with the board’s approval, to find ways the district can save money, analyze financial practices and prepare for impending state budget cuts.
She has spent months combing through district policies, making sure the procedures were being done in accordance with the law and updating the policies with board approval.
She reorganized the district’s staffing to “better meet the needs” of the district, and has worked to find out why teachers leave Higley by sending out exit interviews to former employees and compiling the information.
Birdwell said she is trying to build a positive image of the district, which she said will take time.
“It will come with being visible, listening to people and responding to people,” Birdwell said.