After being elected to the TUSD Governing Board in November, Rachael Sedgwick immediately started to attack, threaten and try to intimidate a longtime district staffer, according to a hostile workplace complaint the employee filed.
Since joining the board, Sedgwick had made a series of “unfounded accusations, threats, attempts to intimidate, and created a hostile work environment for me,” Mary Alice Wallace, the septuagenarian director of staff services at Tucson Unified School District, said in the complaint filed May 15 and recently obtained by the Star through a public records request.
In the complaint, Wallace said she believed Sedgwick was attempting to get her fired from the position she has held since 2006, after joining the district in 1990.
“Her behavior towards me has been demeaning, accusatory and an attack on my performance although I have attempted to establish a professional relationship. I don’t believe I have done anything to engender such behavior toward me,” she wrote.
Both Sedgwick and Wallace said tensions have dissipated since the complaint — which sparked legal investigation and remediation process between the two — and that they now have a professional working relationship.
“Do you think you are replaceable?”
But a review of 155 pages of emails covering more than 20 conversations between Wallace and Sedgwick from December to May, which Wallace included in her complaint, paints a picture of a confrontational, snide and belligerent board member repeatedly bullying and belittling an underling over months.
And, in a Jan. 22 email, Sedgwick questioned Wallace’s campaign contributions to a school board member and seemed to indicate Wallace’s job could be in jeopardy because of them.
“If you were me, would you trust you? Do you think the community at large trusts you? Do you think you have a reputation in Tucson? Why did you donate money to (TUSD board member) Kristel (Foster’s) campaign but not (TUSD board member Mark) Stegeman’s? Do you think it is ok for you to play favorites?” Sedgwick wrote.
“Who hired you? Do you think you are replaceable? And, last, how many people do you think the board needs working for it in the Board office? Do you think the TUSD community thinks your salary is fair? Do you think they think we need three people in the Governing Board office? Which of the three positions is the most important? Why? Take your time answering,” she continued.
Over the next 24 hours, Sedgwick sent Wallace four more emails demanding Wallace justify her position.
Wallace responded politely to each and looped the rest of the board into the conversation.
Board member Adelita Grijalva stood up for Wallace, emailing the entire board to say she was “appalled and offended that Ms. Sedgwick thinks its appropriate to communicate with anyone in this manner.”
“Ms. Wallace is an employee who has had stellar evaluations since the time I joined this board and has served every board member with respect and integrity,” Grijalva wrote, adding Sedgwick’s emails could “very easily be construed” as creating a hostile workplace environment.
Wallace then sent that email thread to the district’s former attorney, Todd Jaeger, saying upon the advice of then-interim superintendent Gabriel Trujillo and Grjialva that she was keeping a record of Sedgwick’s emails “in which she is leveling unfounded accusations and insults at me and making veiled threats toward me and the Board office staff.”
“Not asking you to do anything; am just letting you know, since I am not the only person she is attacking. Just what you wanted to hear, I’m sure! No worries — I’m a big girl and have been around a long time,” Wallace wrote to the attorney.
Four days later, Sedgwick wrote back, not to apologize, but to say she never meant to suggest Wallace couldn’t donate to political campaigns of her choosing.
“You are, of course, permitted by law to do as you choose in your private life,” she wrote.
Dan Barr, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, said for a boss — Wallace reports directly to the board — to even hint that they would take adverse action against an employee because of their political contributions raises First Amendment issues.
“Kind of flew
off the handle”
The district hired an outside attorney to investigate whether Sedgwick had, indeed, created a hostile workplace, and whether she had violated Wallace’s First Amendment right to not be harassed about her political beliefs or donations.
The outside attorney’s report “essentially found what was pretty obvious, which was that I didn’t break any laws. There’s not a hostile work environment, I didn’t discriminate or harass. But at the end of the day, I fully admit that what I did was rude, and I behaved inappropriately. In a professional workplace, you’re not supposed to write snooty emails,” Sedgwick said in an interview last week.
The Tucson Unified School District would not release the report, saying it was requested by and provided to the Governing Board in an executive session for legal advice and is therefore an attorney-client privileged document that could only be released by a vote of the board.
Sedgwick stressed that she didn’t want to relive the past, but in response to questions said both sides shared some of the blame.
Sedgwick said Wallace originally sparked her ire by telling Foster that the two of them would be attending the same education conference. When Sedgwick had to cancel at the last minute, Foster intimated at a board meeting if Sedgwick should reimburse the district for her hotel room.
Sedgwick said it’s common knowledge around the district office that she and Foster don’t get along, and at the time she believed Wallace had told Foster about the trip to help Foster discredit her.
“I thought this is evidence that Mrs. Wallace is treating the different board members differently,” she said.
While Sedgwick said she “kind of flew off the handle” in writing the email, she also thought Wallace behaved “rather inappropriately” by filing a legal complaint against her.
A big learning experience
But that was not the time Sedgwick fired a hostile email at Wallace, nor the last.
On Jan. 17, almost a month after being officially sworn in as a board member, Sedgwick complained that her photo still wasn’t on the district website.
“What do you think it says about TUSD that a governing Board Member’s picture is missing from the website. … Who is in charge of making sure the website is accurate and up-to-date?” she wrote.
“I will thank you in the future to stay on top of things like this. For one, I need to be able to trust that the people who work in the office have my interests at heart — I am an elected Board Member, so I represent the people of Tucson who deserve your respect, attention, and allegiance. Unfortunately, however, I am not experiencing that trust (or respect) in our interactions,” she continued.
In early January, Sedgwick began complaining that she was receiving too many emails from Wallace and demanded Wallace only forward important emails, tag and label the emails to indicate priority.
“If you don’t know how, I’m sure we can find a way for you to learn. If you are not willing to assist me in this matter, I’m sure we can find someone who is,” she wrote.
Then, in February, she accused Wallace of not forwarding all the emails that are sent to the general Governing Board email address.
“Why not? How do you decide what not to send us? Please send us every email that comes in from the community, including from every single person who writes to you with a message for anyone on the board. Does that make sense?” she wrote.
In May, two weeks before Wallace filed her formal complaint, Sedgwick again decided she wanted fewer emails. Noting Wallace had forwarded the same email twice, Sedgwick explained the qualities and behaviors she expected from Wallace.
“Good judgement and decision-making skills, along with initiative, organizational skills, and the ability to maintain confidentiality are imperative. It is mandatory that you demonstrate expertise and understanding of your duties, responsibilities, skills and procedures. ... I hope I have been clear,” she wrote.
On a Friday evening in March, at 6 p.m., Sedgwick emailed Wallace to ask if there had been a walkout at Pueblo High School. At 11 a.m. on Saturday, she followed up: “Please answer the question.”
Sedgwick said even though she realized when she was writing them that the emails would be public records, she felt justified at the time because she was elected to the board on a promise that she would shake things up and rail against the TUSD establishment that has been failing students for decades.
In her zest for reform, Sedgwick said, she made some short-sighted decisions and some enemies. But in her nine months on the board, she has gained some perspective on what it means to be a school board member, how to interact with district staff and how to achieve reform more productively, she said.
She said the entire episode was a big learning experience.
“I had it all backwards, coming in thinking a board member was on top. I’m not really on top of anything.
“You’re a community servant, a public servant. And it should have been a clue, just from that word, that I’m a servant, I’m here to serve,” she said.