Sarah Garrecht Gassen
Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Sometimes watching Tucson Unified School District Governing Board meetings feels like watching a taping of a what-not-to-do school board training video in front of a live, studio audience.

The TUSD Governing Board provided another installment at its Nov. 14 meeting when it took up the very last item on its lengthy agenda: “Request for Classification Review — Requested by Board Clerk Mark Stegeman.”

The title of this episode: “Don’t Target the Job of an Employee Who Not So Long Ago Filed a Hostile-Work Environment Complaint.”

Or, “How to Scare TUSD Employees.” That’s a little catchier.

On Tuesday, Stegeman asked the board to direct the TUSD HR department to review the “Director of Staff Services to the Governing Board” position to find out if the duties merit the $79,000 salary the person in the job, Mary Alice Wallace, receives. It’s only about saving money, he said.

Now, TUSD is unusual in that its Governing Board has its own staff, and the director reports directly to the board president. Only the district’s chief counsel and the internal auditor report to the board. All others fall under the superintendent.

Stegeman has described Wallace’s job as “secretarial,” although she supervises two employees. Like in many jobs, the description on paper doesn’t come close to describing the work that’s actually done. I don’t think he gets it.

Wallace and her colleagues handle all the paperwork for Governing Board and audit committee meetings; they find and assemble documents, make sure legal requirements and policies are met, record meeting minutes, conduct research into previous board action when asked, process the paperwork for student discipline hearings that reach the board, among other duties.

When board members want information about other parts of the district, they file a “request for information” with Wallace’s office. Her office rides herd on it and distributes the resulting information to the entire board. Last year, Wallace filed 300 such requests. “People come to us for all kinds of things,” she said. “It’s detailed work.”

Wallace, you may remember, filed a formal complaint against Board Member Rachael Sedgwick earlier this year after a deluge of emailed insults, threats and intimidating remarks, including: “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?”

The complaint prompted an investigation and, eventually, mediation. When I spoke with her on Friday, Wallace said that today her relationship with Sedgwick is professional, which is all she wanted — to be treated as the professional she is. Wallace also said she hasn’t seen investigation results because the board has to vote to share it with her, and they, as yet, haven’t. “I considered it over with,” she said.

But now that her job and salary have been targeted for review, Wallace is understandably concerned. She’s worked for TUSD for 27 years, always in the board office that, after three promotions, she now leads. There were seven employees when she started, now there are three.

“I have never had a salary increase that was not part of a promotion or raises approved for everybody,” she said. “I’ve never apologized for what I make — you work, and you earn your money.”

Stegeman stated at the Tuesday meeting that he thought, in this time of $4.5 million in budget cuts the district is facing, the board has “to be able to look at our own shop.”

“There has been criticism for years that in the Governing Board office that our salary bill is higher than it should be and I don’t know if that’s true or not,” he said.

When asked if the district is conducting other job classification or compensation reviews, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said yes, they’re looking at bus drivers, research project managers and American Sign Language interpreters — to determine if these employees are underpaid compared to the private sector.

Not exactly the same kind of review as the board majority — Stegeman, Sedgwick and President Michael Hicks — voted to pursue about Wallace’s position.

After the meeting, Stegeman acknowledged to Star reporter Hank Stephenson that it would have looked better if he’d asked for a review of all board office positions, so it wouldn’t look like the board was retaliating against Wallace. Well, yeah. But it goes beyond appearances.

In a district plagued by teacher vacancies, declining enrollment and distrust by the public, the message the board majority has sent is clear, even if they refuse to see it: Stay too long, earn too much, complain about mistreatment and your job could end up under review.

“I’m a big girl, I can take it,” Wallace told me. “But I don’t want to be threatened with my retirement or losing my job. This is not the way I want to end my career.”

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is the Editorial Page editor. Email her at sgassen@tucson.com and follow her on Facebook.