When in doubt, disclose.
That should be the rule of thumb for any public official, or anyone at all, really, confronted with that feeling of awkwardness that comes with a possible conflict of interest.
But when the Tucson Unified School District board’s president, Adelita Grijalva, felt that awkward feeling last month, she chose secrecy. Bad move.
Now there’s controversy and consternation over the hiring of her mother-in-law, Olga Gomez, as a principal in TUSD, at Myers/Ganoung Elementary School. It’s too bad, because that decision casts a shadow over what may have been a great hire for TUSD.
After my colleague Alexis Huicochea reported this week that TUSD’s board had hired Grijalva’s mother-in-law, with most of the board in the dark, Gomez’s old boss wrote Huicochea an email supporting her.
Steve Poling, who was superintendent of the Palominas school district through the end of last school year, said he supervised Gomez for four years.
“I feel compelled to respond to some of the misinformation and speculation surrounding her hiring as a principal in TUSD. First, Mrs. Gomez is an outstanding principal. In my 14 years in administration, she is one of the finest principals I have had the pleasure of working with or supervising.”
It goes on, in glowing terms.
Grijalva told me Thursday she knew nothing of her mother-in-law’s plan to apply at TUSD until June 19, the Thursday before the item came before the school board on Tuesday, June 24. By that time, a hiring committee and Superintendent H.T. Sanchez had settled on her as the top candidate.
“Had I known, I would have told her to apply in a different district,” Grijalva said.
She told Sanchez that Gomez is her mother-in-law. Other board members knew nothing of the relationship at first, though Grijalva did inform board clerk and political ally Kristel Foster privately before the vote.
Mark Stegeman, a frequent dissenter against Grijalva and the board majority, said the members have been receiving inconsistent amounts of information about job candidates to be considered for hiring by the board — sometimes a lot, sometimes next to nothing. On Gomez, they got little, he said.
“I went into the vote knowing almost nothing about this candidate,” he told me Thursday. “I was voting on faith, not raising an issue with it. Now I’m mad at myself because I shouldn’t be doing that anyway, leaving aside this whole family issue.”
At the meeting, Gomez’s appointment came up among a series of other hiring decisions. No one discussed it. Grijalva called for a voice vote, and after the other members said “yes,” Grijalva said, “I’m going to recuse myself.” The process took 30 seconds.
State law doesn’t call this nepotism. Legally, that occurs only when an official participates in hiring a spouse or dependent. But TUSD policy, and common sense, are tighter than that. The policy says:
“Any board member or employee of the district who has, or whose relative has, a substantial interest in any contract, sale, purchase, or service to the district shall make known that interest in the official records of the district and shall refrain from voting upon or otherwise participating in any manner as a board member or employee in such contract, sale, or purchase.”
Grijalva made it known to the superintendent, but not to the public. Her reasoning is not edifying: She was worried the family relationship, rather than easing the hire, could have raised problems with at least one fellow board member, Michael Hicks.
“I knew that at least one of my colleagues on the board, he would have voted against her for no other reason than that she was related to me,” Grijalva said.
It’s possible, she added, that the family relationship might have cost Gomez the job. I don’t know the school board well enough to know whether Hicks and Stegeman both would have voted against the hire because of the family relationship. But if so, with Grijalva recusing herself, that would have left a tie vote, killing the hire.
Maybe it would have happened that way, maybe not, but that’s the breaks.
As Stegeman told me, “If there’s something to disclose you disclose it, then people deal with it at their discretion. If they respond inappropriately to it, then that’s bad on them.”
Grijalva is feeling some regret. “Hindsight being 20-20, should I have done something differently? Sure. But I just wanted people to evaluate her on the merit of her work.”
Now, of course, that’s out of the question.