Academy District 20

Academy District 20 administrative offices at 1110 Chapel Hills Drive.

A veteran retired Colorado Springs police officer and former Douglas County school security official received preferential treatment while being hired as the new director for security at Academy School District 20, the former director for security alleged in a formal complaint.

The district’s former security director, Brian Grady, said in the filing with the district that its new director, Rich Payne, was given preferential treatment during the district’s hiring process based on superintendent Tom Gregory’s “good old boy network.”

Former D-20 assistant director of security Steve Liebowitz, who like Grady and Payne also served with the Colorado Springs Police Department, joined Grady in interviews with The Gazette in claiming that Payne was hired with a starting salary more than $15,000 over the job’s salary range, and only after the position was amended and reposted with education qualifications that accommodated Payne.

Payne, Grady and Liebowitz said, was considered for the job based on Gregory’s professional connection to Payne’s wife, Susan Payne, and despite initially not meeting the job’s required qualifications, including having at least a bachelor’s degree in criminology. The two based their allegations on cellphone, hiring, and personnel records Grady acquired via Colorado Open Records Act requests to the district, and gave to The Gazette to review.

In the Nov. 11 complaint, Grady wrote that the only reason Rich Payne was not terminated after apparent policy violations concerning staff leave time was “due to preferential treatment (Tom’s Good old Boy network).”

District spokeswoman Allison Cortez wrote via an email statement that the district followed a “long-standing process” for hiring people at the level of director or above, noting that Rich Payne was recommended as the hiring committee’s top candidate because of his work ethic, experience, and positive leadership. She added that Gregory and Rich Payne hadn’t met until a graduation ceremony during the summer of 2020.

“As with many positions, professional experience (especially in schools) can be equally, if not more, important than academic experience/degree experience,” she wrote.

Rich Payne did not respond to multiple calls for comment or to an email sent to his district email address. Gregory also did not respond to requests for comment, but Cortez said she consulted with him on the information she sent or said to The Gazette.

According to cellphone records, the day the job was posted, Dec. 11, 2020, Gregory called and left a message on the phone of Susan Payne, Safe2Tell founder and director of safety and security management at Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.

When she called back, the two talked on the phone for 18 minutes. Grady, the former executive director of security and transportation for D-20, added that according to cellphone records Gregory and Susan Payne shared a 30-minute call two days before Grady retired, on Nov. 13, and seemed to keep in contact based on several other messages and calls during and after business hours throughout the past year.

In the district’s statement, Cortez said it was true that Gregory had several phone conversations with Susan Payne, but added that at the time she was acting as the K-12 liaison to El Paso County Public Health, and that the conversations concerned her role with the health department.

When reached by phone, Susan Payne said Gregory is a “subject matter expert in school safety,” but declined to answer further questions about her phone calls with Gregory or Rich Payne’s qualifications.

In district records of the original job posting, Rich Payne appeared among five other candidates — three who had master’s degrees, one who had a doctoral degree, and another who had a bachelor’s degree. Under the job’s “required qualifications” section, the district required a bachelor’s degree in criminology and five or more years in law enforcement experience.

Colorado Springs Police Department spokesman Lt. Jim Sokolik said Payne started at the department in February of 1989 and retired in August 2014. Payne then worked at Douglas County School District as director of school safety and security, according to documents from that district, beginning July 28, 2014, and ending June 30, 2021, according to district spokeswoman Paula Hans.

He also served as a safety consultant for the Jefferson County School District, according to Douglas County and Academy School District 20 documents and recordings, for over two years before his position in Douglas County. Cortez said he served in Jefferson County while working for the Colorado Springs Police Department between 2012 and 2014.

In hiring packets provided to the district, Payne indicated he had completed “some college,” but didn’t have a degree.

Cortez said the district didn’t “have a great answer” for why Payne was considered for the job under the original posting when he didn’t have the education qualifications. She said the district’s human resources department was investigating the issue as part of an inquiry into the formal complaint filed by Grady.

Later, after speaking with members of the original hiring committee, including Gregory and Dr. Jim Smith, she said committee members considered Payne “even though he didn’t have the bachelor’s degree” because he had “a ton of professional law enforcement experience” and because of his roughly six years in Douglas County, “a larger school district.”

Liebowitz, who retired from the district at the end of June, was among the candidates who applied for the top security job. Before his time with D-20, which began in early 2019, Liebowitz said he worked with the Colorado Springs Police Department from 1979 to 2009. He said he was told by Gregory he was the “guy to beat” before applying for the director position, Liebowitz said, members of the district’s hiring committee informed him and other applicants that they weren’t ready to select someone for the position, and were canceling the search.

Liebowitz said he decided not to reapply “because the writing was on the wall.”

Over a month later, on March 19, the job was posted again, this time with amended required qualifications allowing candidates to apply if they have a bachelor’s degree in criminology, or law enforcement or school security experience, or five or more years in leadership or higher education administration positions. Cortez said the qualifications were changed to cast a wider net in an industry hiring committee members felt might not require the education qualifications required of educators, for example, adding that oftentimes, “the best in the industry — they don’t even have a degree.”

Of the original candidates, only Payne reappeared in preliminary interview records, and the second posting yielded four candidates compared to the first posting’s six, according to district records.

Payne was selected as the top candidate of the hiring committee, which didn’t include Gregory the second time around, under the job posting with amended qualifications, and was presented as such by Gregory to the D-20 Board of Education, who confirmed his hiring during a public meeting on May 6. According to his hiring letter, Payne’s annual salary began at $137,500 before taxes, more than $15,000 over the position’s salary range of $112,000 to $122,000 listed on the second job posting.

According to monthly district payroll statements beginning the effective date of his appointment, July 1, that annual salary was at some point apparently raised to more than $143,000.

Cortez said in the district’s statement that the “salary for the position is commensurate with other director-level positions, with similar professional/work experience,” adding that when the district posts a salary range, they take into account the number of years of experience a candidate has, and can pay more by providing “monetary credit for exact and related professional experience.” When asked, the district was unwilling to disclose the formula they use for that monetary credit.

Douglas County School District payroll records obtained by Grady through the Colorado Open Records Act requests indicate Payne in 2020 earned just under $121,000.

Grady and Liebowitz said they were concerned about Payne’s “fit” in a security leadership role, citing two weeks of “staff leave” time he took off during the first month of his contract, according to personnel records, which according to time-off request logs were recorded months later, on Nov. 3, after Grady requested the records from the district on Nov. 2.

Cortez noted that Payne acknowledged during his interview process that he “already had travel plans,” but said that he “did use the wrong type of leave” and that the “issue has since been addressed and clarified with Mr. Payne.”

Citing login records, Grady also noted a nearly six-week delay between the first time Payne logged into a district computer and the second time, which appeared to be on Aug. 23.

Liebowitz also pointed to Payne’s time as a security director in Douglas County, noting he had difficulties obtaining threat assessment and safety reports from the district under Payne’s leadership for students accused with crimes trying to transfer to District 20. They also pointed to Payne’s decision to purchase ten AR-15 rifles for school security in that district, saying it showed Payne was someone who didn’t have a “big picture view of how things should run.”

Asked if there was friction when they served concurrently as Colorado Springs police officers, Liebowitz said he and Payne never clashed, and maintained a “professional, working relationship,” which translated to friendliness during their interactions when Payne was in Douglas County. Grady noted his complaint wasn’t “about the person,” but about behavior and accountability.

“In this situation, they’ve hired somebody that was based on relationship, not based on qualifications, and it’s wrong,” Grady said in an interview. “I don’t know what the relationship is, I don’t care what the relationship is, all I know is that opportunities for employment should be fair.”

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