Commentary: Political trauma created impossible situation for Hargrove

Throughout her 16-month run as Mingus Union school superintendent, one always had to wonder if Penny Hargrove ever once had her feet firmly planted.

Originally hired to become Mingus’ third superintendent in a year’s time, Hargrove showed up for work to learn she was also the school’s principal.

At the time, Mingus labeled the move an administrative restructuring as the high school did not need both a superintendent and principal. Longtime Principal Jennifer Chilton was sent packing.

In an about-face eight months later, the school board agreed it did need both a principal and superintendent after all. Genie Gee was hired to relieve Hargrove of the principal’s job

Early in Hargrove’s tenure, longtime business manager Kirk Waddle left Mingus’ employment to go work for his former boss, Paul Tighe. Executive Assistant Brandi Bateman soon followed to take a job with County Supervisor Randy Garrison.

Suddenly, with Chilton, Waddle and Bateman gone, Mingus was without anyone on its administrative team that had a deep understanding of the institutional history of the school.

To make matters worse, Hargrove came into the job at the onset of a Category 5 political hurricane otherwise known as school district consolidation. Either by her own choice or because of pressure from her school board, Hargrove got more involved in the consolidation crossfire than she should have. Across town, Cottonwood-Oak Creek Superintendent Steve King completely stayed out of the fray, leaving it to the local politicians to get their hands dirty.

Hargrove should have followed suit.

Then again, we don’t know if those really were her decisions or if she was unnecessarily thrust into the fight by her school board.

In fact, much of Hargrove’s tenure at Mingus is a question mark over whether she really had the kind of administrative leeway needed to effectively lead the school or if she was overly micro-managed by the veteran members of the school board.

A classic case in point was the decision over school closings during last year’s Red for Ed teacher walkout.

Every other school board in the Verde Valley with the exception of Mingus trusted its superintendent to effectively gauge teacher availability and decide administratively on the days school campuses should be closed. Hargrove was the lone exception. She had to call a meeting of the school board and let the elected officials tell her when the high school could be closed.

Transparency issues also clouded Hargrove’s 16-month run at Mingus. She was never the best at giving a straight answer to a straightforward question. When the questions dealt with issues such as school board members using private email to conduct public business, problems with the electronic posting of meeting agendas or minutes, or the manipulation of posted minutes, the professionalism with which she dealt with those issues was suspect.

Again, you have to wonder if that was the way Hargrove truly wanted those matters handled, or was she between a rock and a hard place because that’s the way the school board wanted it done.

During one such episode of Mingus’ questionable presentation of school board minutes, when Hargrove was asked why Mingus simply does not back up its minutes with audio recordings as most every other public body in the Verde Valley does as a regular practice, Hargrove said that was not a practice her school board supported.

Again, the transparency problems at Mingus were directly tied to the community discussion on consolidation. Instead of admitting there were problems and then working to correct them, Mingus saw such an admission as a flaw or weakness and an opportunity for consolidation proponents to gain the upper hand.

In the end, though, it was the “D” Mingus received on the annual Arizona Department of Education report cards and her handling of the tech issues that botched Mingus’ performance on the AzMERIT tests last spring that was Hargrove’s ultimate undoing.

The investigation by Mingus attorney Susan Segal into those issues has not yet been made public, but from what was shared during Saturday’s board meeting it does not bode well for Hargrove.

It was enough to convince her to resign her position and take the short end of a three-year contract payout. While this was not shared during Saturday’s public meeting, Mingus Board Member Lori Drake Monday told The Verde Independent, some of the allegations in Segal’s investigative report require “reporting to Office of Attorney General.”

Ultimately, Hargrove’s failure to survive at Mingus was not unexpected. As one social media poster observed over the weekend, “another one bites the dust.” Hargrove is certainly not the first to come and go in short order at Mingus. The school has had 12 superintendents in 18 years.

Few, though, had a rougher go at it than Hargrove. The consolidation storm of the past year alone made the job almost impossible. That combined with the lack of historical institutional administrative knowledge that exists at Mingus and the volatile nature of the school’s politics made Hargrove’s tenure a perfect storm for disaster from her very first day on the job.

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