The East Valley Institute of Technology’s new superintendent was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly mishandling public money while serving as Apache Junction’s superintendent, last Tuesday.
But, instead of getting suspended or fired, Dr. Chad Wilson received an extraordinary vote of confidence from the EVIT Governing Board, two days later and immediately started hugging staff members who spoke in his defense.
Last Thursday, Sept. 12, after a lengthy executive session, the board voted to keep Wilson, who will continue to handle all educational functions.
Likewise, the board adopted additional financial safeguards. Board chairman David Lane said Tina Norton, associate superintendent and CFO at the Pima Joint Technical Education District, will be on loan to EVIT while Wilson addresses his legal problems. JTED is a Tucson school serving a similar mission to EVIT’s.
EVIT provides technical and vocational education to about 4,000 high school juniors and seniors, including 221 from Scottsdale.
“It keeps a continuity of instruction,’’ Lane explains, adding EVIT has been off to a good start in this school year, with “significant improvements’’ in teacher retention over last year after Wilson replaced former Superintendent Sally Downey.
Hired as interim superintendent, he was promoted in July to the superintendent.
A series of teachers and other staff members spoke in Wilson’s defense and cheered during the boards announcement of its decision.
“He’s a joy to work with,’’ Kelley Grantham said. “He treats people with dignity and respect. That’s a new thing for the superintendent’s office at EVIT.’’
Charlotte Foret, an admissions specialist at the east campus, also praised Wilson’s uplifting, professional demeanor. “I think he’s one of the best things to have happened for EVIT. I think it would be tragic if he was not our superintendent,’’ she said.
Embattled Wilson left Apache Junction schools under a cloud, pushed out through a buyout in June 2017.
He was hired almost immediately by Downey in July 2017 and was named interim superintendent in January 2018, after Downey was forced out, she too signed a settlement agreement.
An investigation by an attorney hired by EVIT Governing Board determined accusations made earlier this year indicated Downey violated state procurement and hiring laws.
Downey was praised by her supporters in building the school’s reputation and relationships with corporations over 19 years, but her detractors cited she used fear and intimidation tactics with employees.
The reasons for Wilson’s ouster in Apache Junction in 2017 emerged last week when he was indicted on four felony counts of theft and misuse of public money, allegedly making unauthorized payments to his administrators.
The allegations against Wilson center on $133,223 in payments to Apache Junction administrators from 2012 to 2016.
A state audit claims payments not only were unauthorized, but were made at a time the cash-strapped district was cutting programs and ultimately instituting a four-day class week to cut costs.
The money included $126,000 in “performance payments’’ that went to 11 to 15 administrators; $3,880 for “professional development instruction,’’ and $2,550 went to three administrators to attend athletic events on Friday nights.
Wilson himself received $480 in unauthorized payments, according to the state Auditor General’s report.
The audit noted the district was under “moderate financial pressure,’’ absorbing a $2.7 million budget cut after a decline in enrollment and voter rejection of a budget override.
The district went to a four-day a week schedule to save money, following the latest override defeat in 2015. Voters rejected overrides in 2007, 2010 and 2014. The district is seeking an override again in the Nov. 5 election.
Unaware of Wilson’s payments, the old Apache Junction board in 2016 renewed Wilson’s contract after an evaluation.
But after a school board election in November 2016, Wilson resigned, working out a severance agreement with the out-going board.
The old board persuaded him to stay until June 2017 and agreed to pay him 90 percent of his $119,000 base salary.
No details were made public as to why Wilson abruptly resigned after the 2016 election.
The new board reduced his severance to $41,000 in 2017 – representing unused sick time and vacation time shortly before he left Apache Junction.
Christa Ricci, a newly-elected board member at the time, wrote a guest column to The Independent, indicating the new board learned Wilson had mishandled funds and re-negotiated a new agreement.
Rizzi revealed in her column last week she reported Wilson’s actions to state Sen. Dave Farnsworth, R-Mesa. She declined further comment, referring a Progress reporter to her column in The Independent.
Farnsworth forwarded Rizzi’s tip to the state Auditor General, the state Attorney General and the Pinal County Attorney saying:
“It was a team effort,’’ he said. “We’re happy to see the results of our efforts.’’
In her column Rizzi says she felt a moral obligation to report Wilson’s conduct, even though she enjoyed talking to him during his time on the board.
“Once there was factual information Mr. Wilson had mishandled funds and a possible crime had been committed, I felt I had an obligation as a public servant to report it. I was met with much dissension and attempts to be stifled,’’ Rizzi wrote.
The Apache Junction District released a statement saying it is taking steps to improve accounting and personnel management so no unauthorized payments can be made to staff.
It specifically bars payments for professional development and attending athletic events.
“Working in a transparent, ethical honest manner and serving as good stewards of public funds is of the utmost importance to the current administration and governing board at the Apache Junction Unified School District,’’ the district’s statement said, adding:
“We are glad this chapter has been resolved so we can move forward with being the best educators for the students of our district.’’
The district says it is cooperating fully with the Auditor General’s investigation, which started in April 2017.
The Attorney General’s Office presented the case to a grand jury in late August and obtained the indictment.
Ben Smith, a staunch supporter of Downey and former president of the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board, said he asked Downey why she hired Wilson.
Smith said Downey told him she had reservations, but she eventually capitulated to three “very insistent’’ EVIT board members who advocated strongly for Wilson.
All three of these EVIT board members supported Downey and later lost their re-election bids last fall, creating a change that ultimately cost Downey her job.
“She heard rumblings from within the Apache Junction District. She had reports from Apache Junction he was not aligned with the culture at EVIT,’’ Smith said.
Smith said Downey was concerned Wilson had no experience in vocational education.
After his hiring, Downey and Wilson clashed and he eventually agreed to resign from EVIT in October 2018, Smith said. Minutes from the Nov. 5, 2018, EVIT board meeting list Wilson as resigning, effective June 30, 2019.
But Smith said the results of this meeting were nullified when it was determined officials failed to follow the state’s Open Meeting Law by not posting it 24 hours in advance. It was the last meeting of the previous board, which supported Downey.
Later, the new board selected Wilson as superintendent on July 22.
Smith said the present EVIT board went after Downey and tried to find financial crimes – only to replace her with someone who was criminally charged with financial wrongdoing.
“I am deeply disappointed that this happened. My concern is for the success of the school as a former EVIT student,’’ he said.
Among Wilson’s initiatives early into his EVIT career was to launch a “Changing Lives’’ blog highlighting EVIT’s role as a regional technical school and crowed by the school’s record enrollment of 4,800 students.
Wilson recently submitted an editorial page column – which has not been published – in which he wrote of his son and how he attends Chaparral High School and takes automotive classes at EVIT.
He said the benefits of career technical education are “too great to pigeonholed into stereotypes and old stigmas about who should go to college and who should get a job.’’
“That’s why we at EVIT focus every day on loving our students and serving our community’’ by creating opportunities for students to excel.
“When we work together, there is nothing we can’t do,’’ Wilson wrote.