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Stegeman returns as TUSD Board president

Stegeman returns as TUSD Board president

  • Updated

After a short but contentious battle at the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board meeting this week, Southern Arizona’s largest school district has a new school board president.

Mark Stegeman, a longtime school board member, will serve as board president for the first six months of the year, after reaching an agreement that former board President Michael Hicks would take over the position in July and serve out the remainder of 2018.

The split presidency, which has never been tried in recent history, was the result of an agreement between Hicks and Stegeman, and was approved on a 3-2 vote. Board members Adelita Grijalva and Kristel Foster voted against the split, preferring to keep Hicks as president for an additional year.

The TUSD Governing Board in recent years has been crippled by internal squabbles, personality conflicts and hostile accusations among board members, fights that have intensified since board member Rachael Sedgwick was elected in November 2016, swinging the board majority.

Though Hicks had the votes to continue with a second full term as president, he said he was willing to give Stegeman a crack at the job for a “proving period” — despite the fact Hicks didn’t like the way Stegeman handled the job during his short tenure as president in 2011.

Stegeman served a tumultuous eight-month term before being ousted amid massive protests over the Mexican American Studies fights in 2011.

“Honestly, I had a problem with him the first time (he served as board president), but he’s made commitments that he’ll work with the board. And I really wanted to do that because it’s been so divisive,” Hicks said.

However, even the vote for board president quickly turned hostile, with board members accusing each other of putting personal business ahead of TUSD, having a “complete lack of civility” and “flip(ping) people off and curs(ing) them out from the dais.”

Stegeman noted that the school board presidency doesn’t hold a ton of power, and mostly just works closely with the superintendent to set the agenda for board meetings.

But he hopes to use the position to mend relationships among board members, starting by hosting a board retreat and hiring a professional facilitator to help quash longstanding grudges.

“I don’t think you can completely change it. But I think people can exercise more self control, and we can mitigate it,” Stegeman said. “The personal criticisms and attacks needs to be off the dais. If you want to do it in the parking lot, do it in the parking lot. But it really needs to be out of the public view.”

Stegeman said his priorities include several high-profile issues on the horizon, including approving a budget amid an unexpected budget shortfall due to declining enrollment that could cost the district up to $6 million in this fiscal year alone, restructuring the district’s high schools and revamping its student discipline policy.

“This year, there’s going to be a lot going on,” he said.

At the meeting, Sedgwick praised Stegeman and attempted to nominate him for a full year term, saying he comes prepared to meetings, understands the district budget and knows parliamentary procedure.

But Grijalva, who voted to remove Stegeman as president back in 2011, said his tenure on the board hasn’t proven he can bring people together.

She cited several recent examples of issues that Stegeman brought forward that she said caused unnecessary division and distractions for the board, including University High School’s attempted takeover of Catalina High, targeting one employee’s salary after the employee complained about a board member creating a hostile workplace and a discussion over closing the district’s day care programs.

“We’ve spent more time discussing (the employee’s pay), than we have on A-through-F scores for our schools. That’s a problem,” she said.

Both Grijalva and Hicks said they’re worried about Stegeman’s tendency to micromanage district staff. But Stegeman pushed back against that characterization, saying while he may have been a little overbearing in his early years on the board, he doesn’t interfere with the superintendent’s duties.

“To me, micromanaging is pushing amounts of money here and there, tinkering with the budget, and I haven’t done that. It’s telling the superintendent who to hire, and I don’t do that,” he said.

Hicks noted that if Stegeman doesn’t work out, the board can always “revisit the decision.”

But Stegeman said with such a divided board, someone would have been upset no matter who was elected president. And at least with the split presidency, “nobody’s unhappy for the full year.”

Stegeman’s first term as TUSD board president ended after just eight months, and only a few days after he provided damning testimony against the Mexican American Studies program in an appeal hearing, testifying about a classroom visit in which he described behavior that he said aligned with a book on cult psychology.

Grijalva initiated the vote to demote Stegeman in 2011, and said the testimony against the district showed Stegeman’s agenda “wasn’t in line with TUSD’s agenda.”

“He would do that a lot. He would communicate directly with (the Arizona Department of Education) and try to play gotcha with the district. And I have no doubt he’ll continue to do those kinds of things when he doesn’t get his way,” she said.

Stegeman noted that he was subpoenaed to testify, questioned under oath and had to say what he believed was true, even if it was unfavorable to the district.

And while he fought to keep the position at the time, in retrospect, he doesn’t fault his colleagues for demoting him.

“When I thought about it later, I thought it totally made sense, and I really should have (stepped down) myself. I should have just said myself that it doesn’t make sense for me to be the face of the district any more,” he said.

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at hstephenson@tucson.com or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight


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