Arizona sues district to get $1.7 million back from superintendent

Wilson’s total compensation was approximately $3.3 million between July 2016 to December 2021, state says.
Kristi Wilson
Kristi Wilson

Superintendent Kristi Wilson and the Buckeye Elementary School District have been sued by the state of Arizona over $1.7 million in “additional compensation” the leader received in recent years. The district’s school board, however, has rejected the state’s claims, insisting it had the authority to pay Wilson for retirement credits and unused leave.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who filed the lawsuit last week, cited a state auditor’s report from April that found the Phoenix-area district paid Wilson more than $1.7 million in “additional compensation” in retirement credits and unused leave between July 2016 to December 2021. Those payments amounted to a “gift of public funds” that put Wilson’s total compensation at approximately $3.3 million, which was nearly double what the state’s three largest school districts paid their superintendents during the same period, the audit asserted.

Wilson, who was hired in 2013, was not entitled to $571,256 under her employment agreements, officials said. “Transparency and accountability are not electives in our public school districts,” Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a statement. “Hardworking taxpayers expect these public funds to be expended in accordance with the law and the best interest of students.”

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The state is seeking to have Wilson repay any funds she received “in violation of her employment agreements.” But in its response to the audit, the district maintained the school board’s authority to provide the superintendent with benefits such as allowing her to buy back retirement credits she had accumulated in other states in exchange for a promise to remain in the job.

Board President Jane Hunt declared Wilson had “credentials of the highest order” and also cited her recent term as president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “Buckeye Elementary is one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state, located in a city that is one of the fastest growing in the nation,” Hunt wrote. “The board placed value on retaining continuity of leadership during its continued accelerated growth period.”

The lawsuit and audit report also detailed past substandard academic performance in the Buckeye Elementary School District. As of 2019, four of the district’s seven schools had earned a D or F letter grade, requiring administrators to work with the Arizona Department of Education to create academic improvement plans.

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In response, Hunt called those grades outdated, noting that many factors that influence the grades are outside a superintendent’s control. She also pointed out that the district, which now has 5,878 students, grew by 1,060 between 2013 and 2022 and will carry a nearly $5 million fund balance into 2022-23.

The district has also opened two new schools, a preschool and a family resource center, and established a foundation during Wilson’s tenure, Hunt wrote. She also pointed to the audit’s own finding that the Buckeye Elementary School District’s spending on administration per pupil was comparable to other systems in the state.

The audit also attested that the district’s average teacher salary of $44,536 was about 15% below the state average in 2019. Finally, the state also accused the district of omitting the additional compensation amounts from two of Wilson’s employment agreements and miscalculating withholdings “required from the payments.”

The school board said all information related to Wilson’s pay is publicly available.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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