The suspended superintendent’s long career at the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT) is coming to a rocky end, but at least Sally Downey will enjoy a cushy landing.
Downey, 71, who spent 19 years as the face of EVIT, agreed to a lucrative separation agreement approved by the EVIT governing board after months of controversy set into motion by an election that overhauled its makeup.
The agreement includes Downey’s resignation, effective April 30, giving the technical school an opportunity for a fresh start – a development cheered by EVIT employees and retirees who spoke at a board meeting.
The district provides vocational-technical instruction for about 3,900 high school juniors and seniors – including about 200 from Scottsdale Unified.
Downey, who signed a three-year extension from the previous governing board that paid her more than $188,000 a year, will not leave penniless, according to the terms of her separation agreement.
Her exit deal calls for her to receive her base pay from May 1, 2019, through Feb. 28, 2020, a sum of $157,177. In addition, she is scheduled to receive another $33,333.33 as an annuity payment and to cover taxes during the same period. Her state pension will be based on the highest three years of earnings.
Downey also is entitled to receive another 133 vacation days and 277 days of accrued sick leave, minus what she has used since she was placed on administrative leave by the new board in January shortly after the election.
The agreement would appear to relieve EVIT and taxpayers from the burden created by the third year of Downey’s contract extension, which was to run through 2021.
The politically well-connected Downey has many fans who have come to her defense, including former Mesa Public Schools governing board president Ben Smith and longtime EVIT supporter Shon Rasmussen.
But her impending departure was cheered by those attending the meeting.
They broke into applause after the board met in executive session to confer with an attorney before approving the separation agreement.
Another separation agreement for Assistant Superintendent Steve Waldvogel was discussed in executive session. The board voted to authorize attorneys to follow the advice that was discussed in private, but a final agreement has not been reached.
“I feel a real shift in the energy. It is a positive change,” said Kelley Grantham, a 3D animation teacher. “The atmosphere is more collaborative.”
“Even me being able to speak to you is unheard of and this is new to EVIT,” she said.
Kim Foulger, an interior design and fashion teacher, said that she and other teachers feel liberated by Downey’s departure.
“There was a lot of fear for your job if you stepped out of line,” Foulger said. “There’s been a lot of ongoing suppression of teachers. There wasn’t a lot of freedom.”
Foulger thanked the new board, which has been criticized by Downey’s allies.
“Thank you for endeavoring to create a new culture of liberation at EVIT,” Foulger said. “It is 2019 and time for a positive change at EVIT.”
Foulger said the atmosphere created by Downey revolved around fear and retaliation. She said one example was Downey’s insistence that EVIT remain open during the Red for Ed movement last year and her refusal to allow teachers to participate.
“No one dared to wear a red shirt,” Foulger said. “I am excited to be part of the new EVIT organization.”
Joyce Hinrichs, a former principal, said she was forced into retirement by Downey.
“She would often espouse a plan and we would say, ‘you can’t do it,’” Hinrichs said. Downey would respond, “‘Well, who says I can’t do it?’ Well, the law says you can’t do it.”
An investigation by Susan Segal, an attorney and expert in education law hired by the new board, found a list of potential violations of contract and procurement laws, along with an Open Meetings Law violation, that are under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Among the allegations was the failure to bid contracts with consultants properly, including one with former legislator and Tempe city council member David Schapira.
No wrongdoing has been alleged on Schapira’s part and there reportedly is a disagreement between the previous board and Segal over whether his contract had to be bid.
The selection of a construction supervisor on the expansion of the East Valley campus also may have been improperly handled and may have to be re-bid.
Smith, who attended EVIT, defended Downey by saying any potential infractions were “minor stuff’’ and that she deserved only a reprimand, rather than losing her job.
Smith said the board had removed Downey’s picture from a foyer near the meeting room in anticipation of approving the separation agreement. He said her opponents were invited to attend, and that she has been muzzled until her resignation takes effect.
Once Downey officially leaves EVIT, she plans to tell her side of the story, Smith said.
“She has impacted thousands of lives and impacted the quality of life of young adults and working professionals,” Smith said. “She understood the value of a technical education and used that to make connections for students.”