A Dark Day in Tucson II

A Dark Day in Tucson II

Last Wednesday you received a short note from the Chamber regarding the events of the February 28 meeting of the Tucson Unified School District’s Board of Governors and the resignation of TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez.  Here is more commentary you need to know.

The TUSD Board has been fractured and factionalized for a number of years.  The three-person majority in place when Dr. Sanchez was hired four years ago included Board President Adelita Grijalva, Kristel Foster and Cam Juarez.  They were generally supportive of Dr. Sanchez’s programs and innovative ideas.  TUSD made some important gains in high school graduation rates, maintaining a balanced budget, moving the district toward unitary status and engaging with the private sector.  Board members Michael Hicks and Mark Stegeman voted with the other three board members to make the initial hiring decision of Dr. Sanchez unanimous.  That may have been the last time the board did anything unanimously.

In November of 2016 the voters elected newcomer Rachael Sedgwick to the board in place of Cam Juarez.  When Sedgwick took her seat in January the balance of power shifted, Hicks became the chair and there was a new majority voting bloc.  If ever the admonition that “elections have consequences” were true, this is a classic example.  In her first two months in office Sedgwick established quite a reputation:

  • A public disturbance at a downtown bar after refusing to pay for a beer she had ordered and trying to settle the bill by asking the owner, “Do you know who I am?”
  • Raising her voice and becoming verbally offensive to Dr. Sanchez and TUSD General Counsel Todd Jaeger at a N. Campbell Ave. coffee house.
  • Joking about the merits of white supremacy.

Not long after she was elected to the board I met with Rachael Sedgwick to get to know her and find out what her plans were to be an effective TUSD Board member.  She expressed concern about district administration but stopped short of saying she would favor pursuing termination of the superintendent.  Several weeks later it was she who introduced an item to the February 14 agenda to review the superintendent’s contract, and we all know where that went.  Like many, I find it odd that someone who was so new to the board would begin a term with this level of pre-conceived intention rather than taking her time to survey the landscape before acting in such an extreme manner.

So Sedgwick is seated.  Hopes ran high for some degree of calm.  But instead of working together as a unified board, discussing their individual philosophies about the direction of TUSD policy and possibly changing course, the superintendent became a football.  It was payback time.  Sure, there were differences of opinion among board members.  Healthy and constructive disagreement can be a good thing.  But to my knowledge, Dr. Sanchez acted and performed in a way that met with Board approval.  And like anyone else, can only serve one master, not five.

I also had a meeting late in 2016 before the election with Board Clerk Mark Stegeman.  This conversation also included a discussion about the status of Dr. Sanchez.  Again, there was no indication that any disagreement between the two of them rose to the level of termination or forced resignation.

Two meetings with Board President Michael Hicks in February also included discussions about his perceptions about Dr. Sanchez.  Hicks essentially said that he had some concerns but would only consider termination if there were solid “for cause” reasons.  Well, President Hicks, there evidently were no “for cause” reasons for termination.  If there were you would have brought those charges forward and saved the district the $200,000 it is paying to Dr. Sanchez to get him to go away.  So much for truth-telling.

The Board meetings of February 14, 21 and 28 tell you all you need to know about the new Board majority.  On February 14 the Board met in executive session to discuss the contract status of Dr. Sanchez and TUSD General Counsel Todd Jaeger.  It found itself asking Counselor Jaeger to provide legal counsel about his own contract with the Board.  President Hicks had apparently not noticed the obvious conflict of interest and failed to find substitute legal counsel for the discussion.  The oversight was announced to the packed audience at the Duffy Community Center.  The contract discussions would have to be held the following week on February 21.  Public comment did take place, however, with the audience speaking loudly and forcefully in support of Dr. Sanchez, a fact omitted in the story in the Arizona Daily Star the next day.

A packed house of concerned citizens at the Board meeting on February 21 endured a three-hour wait while the Board met in executive session.  When the Board and Dr. Sanchez emerged from the executive session Dr. Sanchez received a thunderous standing ovation, but again the Board was not prepared to have a contract discussion.  Public comment strongly in favor of retaining Dr. Sanchez ensued. While reading my prepared statement I noted that TUSD had had seven superintendents in 20 years.  I suggested that the superintendents are not the problem.  President Hicks responded by suggesting that the turnover in city managers at the City of Tucson paralleled the turnover of school superintendents as though that was credible justification for TUSD having its own revolving door.  Ugh.  Again, the Arizona Daily Star made no mention of the overwhelming level of support for Dr. Sanchez.

Things finally came to a head on February 28 when the Board emerged from a short executive session and got right down to business.  The Board majority had succeeded in applying enough pressure on Dr. Sanchez that he finally threw in the towel and accepted a $200,000 buyout of his contract.  Credible sources say that part of his decision was verbal abuse leveled at his wife and kids.  How ugly.  The meeting began by moving the contract item from its #11 position on the agenda to #1.  Board Member Foster moved to amend the agenda change to allow the public to again speak before a vote would be taken on the contract item.  Knowing that the audience sentiment would again favor retention of Dr. Sanchez, the new board majority said it had had enough of public opinion and shot down the amendment and silenced citizens and taxpayers.  When called upon to vote to accept Dr. Sanchez’s resignation, Board Member Foster read a sterling description of Dr. Sanchez’s record at TUSD that drew a standing ovation.  Board Member Grijalva read a good-bye letter from Dr. Sanchez that is the classiest I have ever heard.  The vote was taken and Dr. Sanchez was gone.

The Board had alternative choices.  Instead of allowing Dr. Sanchez to finish the year and remain as an interim superintendent, assisting with the transition phase while they found a new superintendent, the Board just blew everything up with no sensitivity to the chaos they created.  Indeed, Dr. Stegeman has written to his constituents that the deputy superintendent will be named as the interim so they don’t have to find a short-term interim leader.  Sounds good, but will she accept that role under these difficult circumstances?  Will she take on her boss’s job with critical holes in the executive team?  Will she be successful in filling the key vacancies that exist when no one knows who’s coming next?  The new majority seemed less concerned with the health of the district and the well-being of its teachers, students and parents, than with fulfilling its political ambitions.

The departure of a highly-qualified, energetic and innovative superintendent like Dr. Sanchez has far-reaching consequences for TUSD:

  • The next superintendent will be the eighth superintendent in 20 years.  That makes the over/under 2.5 years.  Who would want to move their family to Tucson with those odds?
  • Since Dr. Sanchez’s resignation the TUSD general counsel and CFO have also called it quits.  That’s a leadership vacuum, folks.
  • TUSD is about to begin contract negotiations with its teachers’ union without a superintendent.
  • Open enrollment will soon be in full swing.  TUSD anyone?

Since my first mini-commentary was delivered to your inbox last week a number of interesting things have happened.

  • My inbox has been flooded with support for Dr. Sanchez and some real concerns about the new Board majority.
  • A longtime critic of Dr. Sanchez sent me some stats that show district performance against peer districts and the state average.  TUSD was right in there in many categories, lagged in some and led in some.  What the writer neglected to point out is that the poverty level for students attending TUSD schools is 26% higher than the state average.  Anyone who doesn’t believe there is a link between poverty levels and education outcomes is simply not tuned in.
  • Many of the stats sent to me by the critic show TUSD scoring about what it did before Dr. Sanchez was hired, which was right after another good superintendent, Dr. John Pedicone, decided he had had enough.
  • A member of the new Board majority is spouting that voters overwhelmingly supported “change” candidates in the November 2016 election.  There were four  challengers and three incumbents in the race.  When the votes were counted, two incumbents (Kristel Foster and Mark Stegeman) were returned to the Board.  One challenger, Rachael Sedgwick, replaced incumbent Cam Juarez by capturing 2,761 more votes out of the 350,124 votes cast.  Hardly a “mandate for change”.

So what is done is done.  Turmoil on the TUSD Board of Governors has resulted in the loss of a good man and a great administrator.   The deck has been shuffled again and a new Board majority has had its way.

Now they own it, so stay tuned.  And remember, elections DO have consequences.


Michael V. Varney
President & CEO