Secretary of State Candidate Steve Gaynor Saved a School; Upheaval Ensued.

Steve Gaynor, Republican candidate for Arizona Secretary of State, during a debate in July.
Steve Gaynor, Republican candidate for Arizona Secretary of State, during a debate in July. Courtesy of Arizona PBS
Steve Gaynor, the Republican candidate for Arizona secretary of state, once had a short-lived stint as the one-man board of a Paradise Valley private school.

His brief reign nearly 20 years ago culminated in tumult that resulted in the termination of the popular head of school and, eventually, the exit of Gaynor and his family from the school.

Drama that unfolded nearly two decades ago at a small private school in a wealthy enclave of Maricopa County might be viewed as just that — drama — but for the fact that Gaynor is running to be the state’s second in command. If elected in November, he stands a good chance of becoming governor, history suggests. Four of Arizona’s last nine governors rose from the position of secretary of state.

That drama, lodged deep in the past, also provides clues to the leadership practices of a businessman, relatively unknown by Arizonans until this year, who has never before run for office and is bankrolling his own campaign. One former parent described his management style as dictatorial. Another called Gaynor a “visionary” for saving the school.

The events paint a portrait of someone who is savvy, effective, and used to being in control.

click to enlarge The Tesseract School in Paradise Valley in 2009. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
The Tesseract School in Paradise Valley in 2009.
In October 2000, a corporation in Minnesota called the Tesseract Group filed for bankruptcy. The company owned three private schools in Arizona, including one in Paradise Valley. The latter campus had roughly 200 students from preschool through the sixth grade, and it charged $8,000 a year in tuition for elementary school, according to reporting by the Arizona Republic at the time.

Parents who had learned earlier in the fall of the imminent bankruptcy filing were determined not to lose the school. In Paradise Valley, Gaynor, along with another parent named Phil Polich, spearheaded the effort. By all accounts, he was instrumental in saving the Tesseract School in Paradise Valley.

“Steven and Phil really did a brilliant job in putting this deal together, gathering parents, raising the money and getting the school launched,” said Bob Engelman, a former Tesseract parent who served on the board of the Paradise Valley school after Gaynor left.

“Steve was a visionary,” Engelman added. “He did something really good for the community.”

On December 26, 2000, the Paradise Valley Private School Foundation bought the Paradise Valley Tesseract School, SEC documents show. Incorporation documents for the foundation show that there was to be one person on the initial board of directors: Steven Gaynor.

"My wife and I, along with another couple, formed a non-profit corporation to attempt to save the school," Gaynor told Phoenix New Times in an email. "I was experienced in corporate turnarounds and dealing with bankrupt entities. For that reason, I led the effort to purchase the school, which ultimately was successful."

After the purchase, the board of directors "only served a ministerial function," Gaynor wrote. "We had an informal group of parents that guided the Foundation." He added, "My wife and I worked almost full time to keep the school afloat. We received no compensation of any kind for our thousands of hours of work, except for the survival and success of the school."

Nevertheless, parents expected a full board of directors, said one former Tesseract parent, who requested anonymity. Instead, Gaynor "led the drive to take over the school, and then he took over the school himself,” the parent said. “His leadership style is basically, ‘I know best.’”

It’s not clear when parents learned that Gaynor was the sole officer, but when they did find out, they were furious, according to the parent.

The bigger blow was yet to come.

“He led the drive to take over the school, and then he took over the school himself.” — former Tesseract parent

tweet this

The foundation’s first annual report shows that Steve Gaynor was its president and sole officer for more than three months, starting on October 2, 2000. In mid-January 2001, his wife, Dorothy Gaynor, joined as treasurer. Jill Kessler, the head of school, was added as well.

In July 2001, a man named Phillip Moser joined as vice president. That year's report doesn't include a secretary, who joined the board in February 2001, as documented in its second annual report, from 2002.

The 2002 annual report shows that only at the end of the 2001-2002 school year did the Paradise Valley Private School Foundation finally have a full board. In May and June, it got a new chairperson, treasurer, and one officer, with four others taking office a few months later.

It was around then, right after school ended in 2002, that Kessler left, apparently abruptly. She had been at Tesseract for more than 10 years, first as its early childhood director, from 1991 to 1995, before becoming head of school in 1995, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Attempts to reach Kessler through the last school where she worked and through her husband were unsuccessful. Dates and events such as Kessler's departure could not be corroborated with the Tesseract School, which closed permanently last year.

The lack of transparency around Kessler's departure led several teachers and parents to suspect that Gaynor unilaterally fired her. Parents and teachers never received an explanation, and the decision threw the school into turmoil, with parents considering enrolling their children elsewhere and teachers wondering who their next boss would be.

“The understanding was that she was fired, but I have no documentation," said Engelman. "I don't know for sure that Steve fired her; I don't know who else it would’ve been." Kessler might have quit, he said, but if she had, "there would not have been all the controversy there was."

In any case, Kessler’s separation from the school was a shock, Engelman said. “It became a very contentious summer.”

Gaynor said in his email that the board of directors had seven people on it at the time of Kessler’s departure. "The matters surrounding Ms. Kessler’s employment were resolved under reasonable circumstances, which were satisfactory to the parties," he wrote.

“Her leaving was devastating to all of us... After that, the school just entirely changed.” — Elizabeth Lucas, former Tesseract parent

tweet this
The reasons for and circumstances surrounding Kessler's departure remain unclear, but even decades later, members of the Tesseract community remember the fallout. 

One former teacher said the teachers were blindsided by the news. Another former teacher, who knew Kessler but joined the school a year or two after her departure, said that many people were surprised. He described Kessler as “a very dedicated person, liked by the faculty and staff.”

According to Engelman, the parents were divided over Kessler's departure. "Many parents were happy, many parents were unhappy," he said. “Did Steve handle it right? You know, in retrospect, in a school, you need to build consensus for something like that ... Clearly it surprised everybody. It could’ve been handled significantly better.”

Elizabeth Lucas, who sent two daughters to the Tesseract School for at least 12 years starting in the early 1990s, adored Kessler and her leadership.

“She always knew what to do,” Lucas said. “She had the best judgment of anyone I’d ever seen.” Lucas said Kessler set the tone for a school that nurtured children and encouraged their creativity.

“Her leaving was devastating to all of us,” Lucas said. “After that, the school just entirely changed.”

When Kessler left, Lucas still had one daughter at Tesseract. She recalled a teacher hired after Kessler's departure, who gave students a test that the vast majority failed. The teacher said she had deliberately designed the test that way. "It went completely against Tesseract," Lucas said.

Eventually, Lucas withdrew her daughter from Tesseract and enrolled her in a different school. She wasn't the only one.

Gaynor's daughter graduated from Tesseract in 2001, Gaynor said. After that, he and his wife decided to transfer their son to public school "for academic reasons."

"I left the Board at the end of the 2002 school year when we no longer had children attending the school," Gaynor told New Times. "The school survived and prospered for many years after our time there. We are glad many students received the benefits of a Tesseract education long after we were gone."

With elections less than a month away, Gaynor is leading in the polls, the Arizona Republic reported Friday. A poll that included party affiliations showed him ahead of his Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, by 7 to 14 percentage points. A poll that did not include political parties showed him leading by 4 points.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.