You can make the right move and still get it all wrong.
The Tucson Unified School District board showed that last week, finally coming to the climax of its drawn-out superintendent drama by accepting H.T. Sanchez’s resignation after three tries over two weeks.
There were good reasons to split with Sanchez, no doubt, but this was an amateurish performance that flashed warning signs for the future of the district under the current board.
Among the glaring concerns was the simple conduct of the big meeting on Tuesday. Michael Hicks has just a couple of months on the job as board president but has been a board member since 2011. He knows how meetings have run, but he showed limited ability to actually run them.
When the board tried to consider a motion by member Mark Stegeman to move up the agenda item accepting Sanchez’s resignation, fellow member Kristel Foster offered a substitute motion: To hear the call-to-the-audience first. That got Hicks all mixed up and forced TUSD attorney Todd Jaeger to intervene and explain how Hicks needed to move next.
“By the way, he’s our parlatarian,” Hicks said of Jaeger, apparently meaning parliamentarian.
Hicks moved on to take a roll-call vote on Foster’s motion only to hear from new board member Rachael Sedgwick, when it was her turn to vote: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the motion.”
That pattern continued when Foster, with her usual acid tongue, read a long statement objecting to the board’s move to get rid of Sanchez and in the process cited other districts’ poorly thought-out firings.
“Point of order,” Sedgwick, a UA law student, interjected, with Foster plowing forward through her statement. “Relevance!”
“What’s the point of order?” Hicks asked, as Foster continued reading.
“Relevance,” Sedgwick said. “She’s discussing superintendents in other districts as far as I can tell.”
Foster kept speaking, and nothing happened. Then Sedgwick raised her objection again, Hicks responded, and Jaeger felt obliged to intervene and explain that a point of order must be recognized, but that Sedgwick’s objection to Foster’s relevance was not valid.
“There is no such point of order under Robert’s Rule of Order. I think you’re thinking in terms of the rules of evidence,” Jaeger said.
The crowd laughed. I felt bad for Sedgwick in that embarrassing moment, since she’s new to the job, but she had, after all, started this ball rolling by precipitously putting an item on the Feb. 14 board agenda asking for a reconsideration of Sanchez’s status. And Hicks let it happen that way.
Later in the meeting, Stegeman waved a pencil in front of Hicks’ face in order to get his attention and make a motion. Hicks said, incorrectly, that Stegeman could not do so at that time, checked with Jaeger, and then let him move forward with the motion. The performance, at such an important meeting, did not inspire confidence.
The board majority also showed questionable judgment in recent months by meeting, each one individually, with a lawyer eventually used to help oust Sanchez.
For months, Stegeman has been compiling a case against Sanchez, one that could potentially be used to fire him for cause — meaning that he would not be owed the rest of his rich contract. Stegeman turned to attorney Bill Brammer for help with the project.
Brammer has been around the district — he was TUSD’s attorney in the desegregation case from 1974 to 1997, and then again from 2013 to 2015. In that recent round, Brammer was both hired and fired by none other than H.T. Sanchez — of course, with the board’s approval. Then in recent months, Stegeman privately turned to him for advice on dealing with Sanchez.
“I felt that there were legal issues, and I wanted to consult a lawyer. And I took the initiative and contacted him,” Stegeman said.
But Stegeman isn’t the only one to talk with Brammer about Sanchez. So did Sedgwick and Hicks. This creates the possibility that Brammer could have served as a node of communication among them on dealing with Sanchez, which would violate the state’s open-meeting law if it happened.
Stegeman and Brammer said the lawyer didn’t serve as a communications point for the three board members.
“I could’ve been, but I wasn’t,” Brammer told me.
What about his own motives for getting involved in the case, I asked him. Any hard feelings toward Sanchez?
“It was a matter of indifference to me whether Dr. Sanchez was an employee of the board,” he said.
So what could the board have done differently?
For one, Hicks didn’t have to put Sedgwick’s initial idea on the Feb. 14 agenda in the first place. This started the community uproar prematurely, when the board as a whole — perhaps with the exception of Stegeman — didn’t have a firm idea how it planned to move forward.
Second, there clearly was no intention of working with Sanchez, a superintendent who, despite his flaws, had relatively broad community support. I talked with John Pedicone, one of the more recent in TUSD’s series of superintendents, about the situation. And he noted that the board could have brought Sanchez their concerns and asked him to go on a performance plan, which the superintendent could have accepted or rejected.
Sanchez has shown that he is flexible. When he unadvisedly said in one of his early appearances in Tucson that creationism, evolution and global warming “are all perspectives,” he quickly learned that Tucson doesn’t see them as equal perspectives. And he changed.
But that sort of consideration wasn’t in the cards for Sanchez, whom Stegeman voted against when he was hired in 2013.
“It doesn’t look like they were trying to work with the superintendent. It looks like they were trying to get him,” Pedicone said.
There were reasons to end the relationship with Sanchez. He seems to have lied to the school board when he told them administrators were not getting raises back in 2014, at a time when he was packing $10,000 bonuses into some contracts.
He mishandled the desegregation case by taking a hostile approach to the plaintiffs, thereby prolonging the case and creating a false impression that the plaintiffs were, in effect, working against minority-dominated schools.
And he allowed Prop. 301 money to accumulate in TUSD coffers at a time when teachers could have used the money. Instead, some of those millions were used to balance the district’s accounts.
Those were big problems, potentially grounds for a firing. But obviously the board majority members were not confident they were adequate, because they paid $200,000 to Sanchez to make him go away.
And now, we’re left with a board that, having forced Sanchez out, is obligated to do better.
Stegeman advised me when we talked Friday not to judge yet but to wait until interim and then permanent superintendents are hired. Fair enough, but seeing how we got here, it is hard to imagine this board doing any better.