Mark Stegeman’s support of two Republican candidates in the Tucson Unified School District board race has revealed a surprising degree of Democratic Party concern over the race, which is nominally a nonpartisan election.

Last week Pima County Democrats told Stegeman, a member of the board since January 2009, that he would have to step down as a precinct committeeman.

That came after news, revealed first by Tucson Weekly writer David Safier, that Stegeman had donated money to and collected signatures for the campaigns of the two Republicans, incumbent Michael Hicks and challenger Debe Campos-Fleenor. Stegeman not only relinquished his party position but went on to drop his Democratic Party registration this week and become an independent.

Now, county Democrats are considering endorsing two of the six Democrats running for the two school board seats. If they can get a quorum of 30 members Monday night, the committee will likely entertain a motion to endorse incumbent board President Adelita Grijalva and new candidate Jen Darland.

“We’re split, and the split in the Democratic Party means there’s a realistic chance of both Republicans winning,” former county chair Jeff Rogers told me Thursday. “The party should endorse the strongest ones with the hope of putting them over the top.”

He noted that four years ago, Dems were similarly split, and that helped Hicks win his seat on the board, though it didn’t shift control.

This time, control of the board is in the balance,” Rogers said.

That’s because, amid the conflict over ethnic studies in 2011, Stegeman lost his board presidency and came to side with Hicks in a minority of two against the majority led by Grijalva. If Stegeman can get an additional ally on the board, he could end up leading a three-member majority.

He acknowledges that was his reason for supporting the Republicans, though he says he didn’t realize at the time that violated the party’s bylaws.

There are a lot of things I want to do, or oppose doing, where Hicks is my only vote,” Stegeman said. “In supporting him, I’m protecting the vote I’ve got. He doesn’t vote with me all the time, but he does a lot of the time.”

Some issues on which Stegeman lacks a third vote, he said, are academic standards, school discipline and the recent proposal to establish an internal auditor. Some of the Democrats, such as Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, might vote with him on those issues, he said.

“Debe, I think, would probably help me on almost all of those issues,” Stegeman said. “That’s my guess, so I’m going with the person who would do the most good for me.”

Stegeman said he still feels aligned with the Democratic Party on some issues but is glad not to have to have the stress of trying to meet what he called the party’s “purity tests.”

I got a lot of public grief from Jeff Rogers, and still do,” Stegeman said. “I didn’t feel like the party was helping me. I’ve tried to help the party.”

The travails of Stegeman and Tucson Democrats may reflect a growing partisanship in educational issues, even though school board members are elected on a nonpartisan basis with the top vote-getters taking seats regardless of party.

Education on a whole is becoming more of a partisan issue, mainly on the question of taxes and how tax dollars will be spent,” said Ann-Eve Pedersen, a former Arizona Daily Star colleague who has for years worked as a public-school advocate.

“I think it’s harmful to turn school board elections into partisan issues,” she added

Bruce Burke, who was on the board from 2003 to 2010, agreed that there is rising partisan interest in school board elections and guessed that in Tucson, some of the blame falls on Stegeman, whom he called “divisive” as a board member.

“I’m guessing that the divisiveness probably fueled a greater interest on the part of the parties,” he said.

Of course, well before Stegeman took office, there was one-time Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who built his statewide political career on opposing Mexican American Studies in Tucson. That became perhaps the most polarizing issue in Tucson’s recent history.

Whatever the reason for the increasing partisanship over education issues and school board races, Tucson Dems are hoping to avoid being on the losing end.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter