Buckeye Elementary School District overpaid superintendent by more than $570K, attorney general alleges

The Arizona attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Buckeye Elementary School District (BESD) and its superintendent Kristi Wilson after she allegedly received more than $1.7 million in "additional compensation" from July 2016 to December 2021.

During that time, BESD reportedly paid Wilson a total of $3.3 million in compensation - more than $570,000 of what the superintendent was entitled to under her employment agreements.

That total is also about 100% more than what the state's three largest school districts were paying their superintendents at the time, according to Attorney General Mark Brnovich. The lawsuit aims to have Wilson return the funds that the school district overpaid to her based on her employment agreements.

"Transparency and accountability are not electives in our public school districts," said Attorney General Mark Brnovich. "Hardworking taxpayers expect these public funds to be expended in accordance with the law and the best interest of students."

The district is denying the allegations, calling them "misleading and inaccurate on several counts."

Buckeye Elementary School District statement

"It is surprising and disappointing that the Arizona Attorney General chose to issue a news release to publicize the lawsuit filed against our school district and superintendent with no notice or alert to the school district’s Governing Board or leadership. We are reviewing all this material now and it would be premature to issue any statements before we fully understand the Attorney General’s actions. We look forward to responding through the appropriate legal channels. It is worth noting, though, that the superintendent’s employment contracts that have been called into question were negotiated in good faith by two attorneys with the Governing Board. And we will reemphasize the district’s position on the Auditor General’s report, which also is the foundation of the Attorney General’s complaint. That position includes:

  • The district disagrees with the Auditor General’s overall findings. The Governing Board did not gift public monies in approving a contractual benefit of employment for the superintendent – particularly in light of the fact the district’s administrative expenses, which include the superintendent’s compensation, have been consistently lower than peer districts.
  • The district Governing Board, elected by the people who live in the school district, has the legal authority to determine the salary and benefits for the superintendent.
  • The district has stayed within budget and our schools have done well academically, including documented improvement for our schools with the latest letter grades issued by the state."

On Jan. 9, the district provided further comment, saying in full:

"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."