Retirement isn’t a new concept for Dr. John Kriekard but this time, he thinks it's for good.
The outgoing Scottsdale Unified School District superintendent exited his third retirement in May 2018, inheriting a beleaguered district reeling from the past administration’s alleged conduct of conflict of interest and cronyism.
He will enter his fourth retirement July 1, leaving behind a district that has garnered higher trust from the community, a new maintenance and operations override and a new leader ready to take the district into an ever-shifting future.
Dr. Kriekard, who spent over half of his over-40-year education career in SUSD, said when history’s eyes are upon his two years as SUSD superintendent, he hopes the community remembers him as merely a bridge to a greater future.
“That would be perfect to say look, whatever I’ve done to stabilize things and get things going, that’s great,” he said. “Then he (incoming Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel) gets the support to move forward because that means the kids are learning more and being more prepared for their future to do whatever they choose to do than ever before. That’s the dream.”
In 2015, Dr. Kriekard retired for the third time from education, this time from Science Foundation Arizona, thinking it would be his final retirement. After seeing the state of a district he called home for 23 years, he knew he had to do something.
“I had calls from community people, from teachers, from administrators saying ‘please come back and help us out,’” he said. “So I did and I was really fortunate that they chose to hire me but it was absolutely a decision more of the heart than of the head.”
Like a bridge over troubled waters, Dr. Kriekard helped trust in the district grow and stabilize the yawing of the district in regard to turnover. His first step in doing that was to hire a cabinet.
There were many vacancies left in the district leadership as the 2018-19 school year approached. Dr. Kriekard said he was fortunate to find what he considered quality candidates for those positions while only having to encourage one person to apply.
“Really a strong cabinet,” he said. “They have gelled together. They are together as a team and that’s important so that when decisions are made, they’re carried out consistently and everybody listening well to everybody else.”
As the district leadership settled, teachers and district staff did as well. Dr. Kriekard said he noticed the new orientation got significantly smaller over his time at SUSD, indicating it was retaining teachers more.
This also applied to principals as Dr. Kriekard said the district hired seven new principals during his first school year. That number dropped to four the next school year and down to two for the coming school year.
“Stability is very important to successful districts,” he said. “The research shows that stability of programs, stability of leadership are things that create better learning experience for kids.”
With that stability came an extra layer of trust from the community. Overall, the 2019-20 Hanover Climate study revealed significant jumps in the public’s perception of district leaders and the direction the district is going.
Another indicator was the district’s maintenance and operations override renewal that voters approved with a 61% majority in the November 2019 election. Dr. Kriekard said he didn’t even want to think of asking the public for its confidence a year earlier because he knew it wasn’t there.
His theory for the large approval margin is teachers and principals felt supported and they conveyed those feelings to the public. Dr. Kriekard said it’s heartwarming to see the growing trust because he knows a lot of good happens when the public trusts the school district.
“Personally, I’ve tried to build my career on based on integrity and being student-focused,” he said. “If the increase in trust is an indication they believe in my integrity and believe in the student-focused that we’ve brought to district decisions then I feel good about that.”
While trust and stability are important, they are not the biggest point of pride for Dr. Kriekard during his tenure, he says.
Early in the morning on Aug. 22, 2018, Dr. Kriekard awakens to a blitz of texts and calls regarding a fire at Navajo Elementary School. As the morning progressed, he learned the fire was severe and the students wouldn't be able to attend school that day.
Dr. Kriekard called an emergency cabinet meeting and the brainstorming took off. The cabinet pointed to a campus on Oak Street, that served primarily as storage, as a potential interim school.
Dr. Milissa Sackos, assistant superintendent of secondary education, used to be a principal at an alternative school that used the campus so Dr. Kriekard had someone who he said had a deep knowledge of the campus.
Early that afternoon, every district department gathered at the Oak Street campus to discuss if they could get it ready for school the next day. He said the response was a resounding, “yes.”
The group then broke down the many different aspects of the school such as WiFi, drop-off, the phone system and the bell system. With a plan in place, the departments moved forward.
As for the teachers, many said they didn’t have supplies or the necessary equipment to hold class. So, SUSD’s team reached out to other schools in the district and Dr. Kriekard said within the hour, supplies were flooding in for those teachers.
“It’s just an incredible story of how, in times of crisis, this district was able to come together and the kids missed one day of school when there was a fire and it hasn’t opened yet,” he said. “It will this summer but they spent two complete school years in that other building.”
But the story doesn’t stop there. Dr. Kriekard said when schools shut down this spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he wasn’t surprised to see the district mobilize to create an online program for every student in the district.
He points to the experience with Navajo as a foundation for what he believes the district is capable of accomplishing. He said that ability carries over into other aspects of the district such as academic achievement and challenges at Coronado High School.
“There are really hundreds of little things that we took on,” he said. “Things we discovered, not just from the previous administration but maybe for a couple of administrations where decisions were made that we didn’t agree with in our leadership team and, I think, for the better of the students.”
As illustrated through the climate study, Dr. Kriekard has seen a lot of positive opinion for his work as superintendent. He’s also seen his fair share of positive opinion from those within the district.
SUSD Governing Board President Allyson Beckham praised Dr. Kriekard’s efforts on rebuilding trust and bringing veteran leadership to the district.
She also lauded his support of STEM initiatives; the increase of guidance counselors, social workers and match coaches; and enhanced financial reporting and human resource protocols.
“And in the face of a global and ongoing public health crisis, Dr. Kriekard and his leadership teams have worked tirelessly to transition to online learning, deliver meals to families in need, and develop plans to reopen in August,” she said via an emailed statement.
“The SUSD Governing Board is deeply grateful to Dr. Kriekard for his time, leadership and commitment to our students and community.”
During the district’s June 23 meeting, board member Sandy Kravetz took time to praise Dr. Kriekard as well. She said his experience and leadership made a big impact on the district.
Kris Ambri, a teacher at Copper Ridge School, said in her experience as president of Scottsdale Education Association over the last two years, she’s met monthly with Dr. Kriekard as well as when other issues would arise.
“I’d like to say that Dr. Kriekard worked tirelessly for the betterment of our district, showing his passion for education and our students in his every action, and it was truly my pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with him as we focused on moving our district forward in a positive manner,” she said in an emailed statement.
When Lara Palles, president of the Scottsdale Parents Council, was a newcomer to the district in 2016, she described the district as tense. She noticed heated debates between stakeholders and severed relationships between teachers and the administration as well as relationships between teachers and parents.
Then, Dr. Kriekard arrived.
“His warm demeanor, genuine compassion, and well-respected experience as an educator reduced tensions throughout the district. Slowly and steadily he repaired bridges between stakeholders by engaging in open dialogue with community members,” she said in an emailed statement.
“By mending the relationships throughout the district, Dr. Kriekard brought the focus back to what matters the most: the success of all SUSD students. He enabled our district to rise up to the new challenges we now face.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a firm grip on the world for several months, upending many aspects of life. Dr. Kriekard’s final quarter saw the pandemic take a large focus as the district figured out how to operate.
The pandemic also sidelined several topics Dr. Kriekard was looking to address in the final quarter. Among those were examining high school start times and the Saguaro Innovation Center.
While the innovation center is under construction, Dr. Kriekard said the project is moving slower than anticipated and he had hoped to explore the possibility of innovation centers at other high schools.
Despite some items left in the queue, Dr. Kriekard said there is much he is proud of over the past two years. He also expressed his support and admiration for incoming superintendent Dr. Menzel.
“I think they’re (the public) going to find him to be an excellent leader and a person who has great compassion and understanding,” Dr. Kriekard said.
“In the short-term future, it’s going to take a lot of patience, a lot of understanding. We are all in uncharted waters. I think Scott (Menzel) has all of the process orientations that he needs but he’s not from Arizona, he’s not from Scottsdale. He’s going to need some patience and understanding.”
Dr. Kriekard also asked the community to be helpful during the coming months. He said he’s received numerous correspondence with excellent suggestions but he’s also received attacking criticism so he asks the public to be proactive in helping district leaders move forward.
Finally, Dr. Kriekard encouraged the community to maintain it’s high expectations of the district because that is what drives the district forward.
“Scottsdale can continue to move forward and always be the bellwether district in the state, rather than the butt of jokes as it was for a while,” he said.
For the fourth time since 2009, Dr. Kriekard finds himself at the threshold of retirement as he assures this is the final time. The coming days will be filled with golf and family time including a trip to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands with his children and grandchildren.
All in all, Dr. Kriekard says he is looking forward to the “perfect retirement.”
But before he heads to a life of no alarm clocks and Caribbean vacations, Dr. Kriekard had one message to the district and its community. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for the support I’ve received and the district has received such as the M&O override but on a daily basis from people,” he said.
“So No. 1, thank you.”