BUCKEYE, Ariz. — Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Buckeye Elementary School District over reports that its superintendent had received $1.7 million in "additional compensation."
The issue came to light earlier this year after auditors discovered Superintendent Kristi Wilson could have potentially been overpaid between 2016 and 2021.
The majority of the $1.7 million in extra compensation was paid toward retirement credits on behalf of the superintendent and not directly to Wilson, but it still raised her total compensation into a much higher range than her peers.
The superintendent was allegedly not entitled to receive about $571,256 of the additional compensation under her employment agreements, according to Brnovich's office.
Brnovich's complaint accuses the district of violating Arizona's gift clause, which prohibits the government from gifting public funds to citizens.
The attorney general is asking the courts to recover any money that was found to have been allocated in violation of the law.
"Transparency and accountability are not electives in our public school districts," said Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whose term in office ends this year. "Hardworking taxpayers expect these public funds to be expended in accordance with the law and the best interest of students."
After the revelations about Wilson's compensation came to light, some district employees appeared before the school board back in May and said they were "enraged" and "embarrassed" by the audit's findings.
District officials have previously defended its decision to give extra compensation to Wilson, claiming the payout was part of a deal to keep Wilson from leaving Buckeye.
The school district released the following statement on January 9, 2023:
The former Attorney General’s civil action naming our school district and Superintendent repeats the misstatements and misleading comparisons that resulted from the Auditor General’s report earlier this year. It’s important for our school district and the people we serve to keep setting the record straight.
Indeed, the former Attorney General’s civil complaint repeats and relies on the Auditor General’s most misleading statement: that Dr. Kristi Wilson was “paid” $1.7 million of “additional compensation” from 2016 to 2021, an amount that, if accurate, would make Dr. Wilson’s compensation far more than what Arizona’s three largest districts pay their superintendents.
Unfortunately, the former Attorney General’s civil action is misleading and inaccurate on several counts. The employment contracts for Dr. Wilson, an experienced, proven education leader, were reviewed by attorneys for BESD and for Dr. Wilson, were negotiated in good faith and have always been available for anyone to review. For several years, the contracts allowed Dr. Wilson to “buy back” retirement credits that she paid for and earned while working in Oregon. Elementary and secondary school leaders are not permitted to transfer retirement credits across state lines. As an incentive for Dr. Wilson to remain in our district, our board agreed to provide the funds to both buy back the retirement credits and cover the taxes associated with the buy back. To be sure, that was a benefit to Dr. Wilson. But much of that money was sent directly to the Arizona State Retirement System, which approved the arrangement, or to the Internal Revenue Service.
The addition of the retirement credit payments makes comparisons of Dr. Wilson’s compensation to other superintendents meaningless and misleading. And with those benefits now ended, Dr. Wilson’s base salary is just below the median for districts our size.
The former Attorney General argued that Dr. Wilson’s compensation exceeded the benefits BESD received from her services. That is simply not up to the Attorney General to decide; it is the local school board’s job. In addition, BESD under Dr. Wilson’s leadership has been one of Arizona’s fastest growing districts, adding 1,200 students and opening two new schools and one preschool. Throughout this period of rapid growth, BESD has stayed at or under budget.
Most importantly, all seven BESD schools open at least two years received an “A” or “B” grade this year from the Arizona Department of Education – including four schools that raised their previous grades of “D” or “F.”
Finally, it was disappointing that the former Attorney General chose to announce this lawsuit in his very last days in office, with no warning, even though Dr. Wilson and BESD were involved in ongoing discussions with him on these issues for months. We now look forward to continuing those discussions with the new Attorney General.
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