The East Valley Institute of Technology’s new superintendent last Tuesday was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly mishandling public money while serving as Apache Junction’s superintendent.
But instead of getting suspended or even fired, Dr. Chad Wilson two days later received an extraordinary vote of confidence from the EVIT Governing Board and immediately started hugging staff members who had spoken in his defense.
After a lengthy executive session, the board last Thursday, Sept. 12, voted to keep Wilson, who will handle all educational functions. EVIT serves about 4,300 high school juniors and seniors, including about 400 from Ahwatukee and other Tempe Union campuses.
The board also adopted additional financial safeguards by bringing in the chief financial officer of a Tucson technical school to handle business functions, according Dave Lane, the board’s chairman.
Lane said Tina Norton, associate superintendent and CFO on 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.
“It keeps a continuity of instruction,’’ Lane said, adding that EVIT has been off to a good start in the school year, with a “significant improvement’’ in teacher retention from last year after Wilson replaced former Superintendent Sally Downey.
Hired as interim superintendent, he was promoted in July to superintendent.
“Most students will not be aware that anything happened,’’ Lane said.
A series of teachers and other staff members spoke in Wilson’s defense and cheered when the board announced its decision at a special meeting Sept. 12.
“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 it would be tragic if he was not our superintendent,’’ she said.
Wilson left Apache Junction schools under a cloud, pushed out in June 2017.
He was still hired almost immediately by Downey in July 2017, and was named interim superintendent in January 2018 when Downey was forced out after she too signed a settlement agreement.
An investigation by an attorney hired by the EVIT Governing Board culminated in accusations earlier this year that Downey had violated state procurement and hiring laws.
Downey was praised by her supporters for building the school’s reputation and relationships with corporations over 19 years, but her detractors cited the fear and intimidation tactics she used in dealing 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 for 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 said the 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 that 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 had been under “moderate financial pressure,’’ absorbing a $2.7 million budget cut after a decline in enrollment and voted rejection of a budget override.
The district went to a four-day a week schedule to save money after the latest override defeat in 2015. Voters also 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 submitted his resignation and worked out a severance agreement with the out-going board.
The old board had persuaded him to stay until June 2017, and agreed to pay him $107,000 – about or 90 percent of his base salary of $119,000.
No details were made public as to why Wilson abruptly submitted a resignation after the 2016 election.
But the new board in 2017 reduced his severance to $41,000 – representing unused sick time and vacation time shortly before he left Apache Junction.
Christa Ricci, a newly-elected board member at the time, wrote in a guest column to The Independent that the new board learned Wilson had mishandled funds and re-negotiated the new agreement.
Rizzi revealed in her column last week that 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 said he forwarded Rizzi’s tip to the state Auditor General, the state Attorney General and the Pinal County Attorney.
“It was a team effort,’’ he said. “We’re happy to see the results of our efforts.’’
Rizzi said in her column that 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 that Mr. Wilson had mishandled funds and that 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.
“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 said it has cooperated fully with the Auditor General’s investigation since it started in April 2017.
Melanie Chesney, a spokeswoman with the Auditor General’s Office, said the audit results were sent to the Attorney General.
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 that Downey told him that 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 also supported Downey and later lost their re-election bids last fall, creating a change that ultimately cost Downey her job.
“She had heard rumblings from within the Apache Junction District. She had reports from Apache Junction that he was not aligned with the culture at EVIT,’’ Smith said.
Smith said Downey also was concerned that Wilson had no experience in vocational education.
After the 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 that officials had 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 is 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 so far is his “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.’’