You thought the shenanigans at the TUSD board could not get any weirder?
You thought wrong.
A strange series of events took place this week that could be a precursor to a firing of Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, or the first step in a lawsuit by Sanchez against the district.
Could be both.
First came the sudden appearance Monday afternoon on Tuesday’s board agenda of an item, requested by new member Rachael Sedgwick, that could have led to Sanchez’s firing (more on this below). After meeting behind closed doors, the board dropped the matter.
Then Wednesday, Sedgwick and member Mark Stegeman, a longtime critic of Sanchez, got a special board meeting scheduled for this coming Tuesday with Sanchez’s job, along with that of TUSD general counsel Todd Jaeger, as the main item.
Finally, Thursday afternoon, Sanchez’s attorney, Peter Limperis, showed up at the Foothills law office of Rusing & Lopez to have a meeting with attorneys and Stegeman.
This alone is strange. At next Tuesday’s meeting, the board can talk for hours behind closed doors if it wants, with the help of attorneys who can hash out the terms of the superintendent’s departure, if that’s what it comes to. That apparently is not soon enough for somebody. Though who exactly wanted the junta is unclear.
According to Stegeman, Sanchez asked Board President Michael Hicks for a meeting. Hicks then asked Stegeman to set it up, said Stegeman.
Stegeman expected Sanchez himself to be there, but only the attorney was — along with board members Kristel Foster and Adelita Grijalva and a TV reporter.
Who set up who? It’s unclear. When Stegeman arrived, the other two board members confronted him and followed him into the law office in what Stegeman called a “circus.”
Grijalva told me from the parking lot, “He, without any board approval, is trying to negotiate terms of settlement. He doesn’t have any authority.”
Stegeman said that wasn’t it at all — and he thought he had been set up.
“I’m not empowered to negotiate on behalf of the board. I’m just having a conversation,” he said.
Stegeman has been working behind the scenes to build a case for firing Sanchez “with cause” — meaning because of Sanchez’s own behavior or performance. This would allow the district to get out of its contract with Sanchez rather than paying him the rest of it to get rid of him.
Stegeman reached out in recent weeks to my colleague Alexis Huicochea, now an editor but previously a reporter who covered TUSD and Sanchez.
He asked her in an email to confirm that Sanchez made two contradictory statements back in 2014 — one an apparent lie about the hiring of board member Grijalva’s mother-in-law.
He wanted Huicochea’s confirmation in writing, even though the information was laid out in her stories — better to use as ammunition in a firing.
Huicochea refused, pointing out the stories stand on their own.
There’s nothing wrong with a board building a case to fire somebody. You shouldn’t fire somebody with no good reasons. But negotiating his departure in private and cutting out other board members is not right, no matter who set it up.
Sedgwick wouldn’t tell me when I asked her Thursday afternoon if she knew in advance about the meeting. But she did say, “My very strong preference is for this to happen in the open as much as possible.”
She’s right — it should be in the open, or at least in a meeting of the full board, not a private meeting.
Sedgwick takes lead
It can be a good thing when a new elected official gets involved right away and takes the job seriously. Sedgwick seems to be doing that. And yet, an unsettling pattern has developed when it comes to the TUSD governing board’s newest member.
Sedgwick has been on the board for about six weeks. Even in the weeks before taking office she was making waves by raising her voice and heightening conflict when it didn’t seem necessary.
Consider the late-December incident at a downtown Tucson bar, the Highwire Lounge, which didn’t strike me as very significant at the time. It really came back to me this week when Sedgwick attempted a last-minute effort to force the board to consider Sanchez’s employment.
To be clear, it isn’t that the board shouldn’t consider firing the superintendent — I tend to favor replacing him — but Sedgwick’s Monday demand that it be put on the agenda Tuesday was a precipitous move that reminded me of the Highwire incident.
Sedgwick was at the bar and ordered a special Belgian ale. She was told in advance it was $12 but said later she didn’t understand it came in a small snifter, not a pint glass. When the bartender gave the snifter — she said it was six ounces, the manager tells me it holds 12 ounces — she said that wasn’t what she wanted and refused to pay.
That’s when bar manager John Hardin said she broke out the words that no official should speak: “Do you know who I am?”
Sedgwick isn’t so sure those were her words. She said she did mention her impending school board membership to warn him that when she posted negative comments about the bar on social media, lots of people would hear it.
It was not the last hostile conversation in the board member’s recent history. Just last week, at Raging Sage Coffee Shop, Sedgwick met with Sanchez and the district’s general counsel, Jaeger. Sanchez ended up leaving early when Sedgwick’s tone turned hostile, district spokeswoman Stefanie Boe and Jaeger told me.
“There was a tense exchange,” Jaeger told me. “He indicated he wouldn’t be talked to in that way.”
Jaeger stayed a few minutes longer, discussing unrelated matters, then left.
That meeting, Sedgwick told me Wednesday, was not the sole reason she introduced the idea of reconsidering the employment of Sanchez and Jaeger to last Tuesday’s agenda. It was more like the final straw, she said.
“He’s made it very clear that he really does not want to work with me,” she said of Sanchez. “He won’t entertain my questions, respond to my requests, that sort of thing.”
So Sedgwick demanded of Board President Hicks on Monday that it be put on Tuesday’s agenda.
“I put it on because Rachael Sedgwick asked to put it on,” Hicks said. “It became a contentious communication. So I gave up and said OK.”
Again, there’s no problem with considering whether a superintendent is doing a good job. But you can’t casually put possible termination on the agenda as if it’s not a huge deal that the community shouldn’t be involved in.