Nobody wants to continue the tradition of three-member voting blocs running TUSD.
And yet here we are in 2018 making a decision that sounds so 2009. Do we want Mark Stegeman or Adelita Grijalva to run the Tucson Unified School District Board?
Grijalva first won election to the board in 2002, and Stegeman joined her in 2008. They have had a rivalry of varying intensity much of the time since then and have acted as the board’s poles.
Stegeman is not on the ballot, but he is anxious to have a new board member who will support his agenda, potentially creating a three-vote majority on the board along with member Rachael Sedgwick. He is supporting new candidate Doug Robson, a retiring property manager.
“I would like to have a board that would support the changes I think TUSD should make,” Stegeman said Tuesday. “I support Doug because of that. Believe it or not, it’s not because I want to control the board.”
“People say, ‘Stegeman’s got an agenda.’ Well of course I’ve got an agenda. What am I doing there if I don’t have an agenda?”
Sedgwick, a first-term member, is no wallflower but has been friendly to Stegeman’s priorities. On the other hand, longtime member Michael Hicks, once considered a Stegeman ally, has clashed with Stegeman frequently.
Hicks told me Tuesday, “The way I see it, it is a fight to get a majority, by Dr. Stegeman and Ms. Grijalva, and I stand in the way.”
Hicks and Grijalva, the incuments, are two of five candidates. The other ones are Robson, Adam Ragan and Leila Counts. Grijalva has endorsed Ragan, and Counts, also a Democrat, likely shares many of the same values as Grijalva. So, if Grijalva were to win, along with Ragan or Counts, she could form a three-member majority along with current board member Kristel Foster.
Grijalva pointed out when we spoke this week that supporters of Stegeman, such as his former campaign manager Pilar Ruiz, are involved with an independent effort to oust Grijalva. It’s called No 5th Term, because if Grijalva wins, this would be her 5th term on the board. She’s convinced the group is a stand-in for Stegeman, though he denies any involvement. He says he’s too busy.
“To the extent I can put anything into this campaign, I’m helping Doug (Robson),” Stegeman said.
Grijalva has her own outside help. The Tucson Education Association Political Action Committee has endorsed her and is working for her re-election by canvassing and making calls, TEA President Jason Freed told me.
Counts and Ragan both say they would be their own masters if either is elected to the board.
“What I’ve been saying from the beginning is I’m running for our kids. I’m not running with anybody. I’m not running against anybody,” said Counts, who has one child in TUSD and another on track to enter the district next year.
Ragan, a teacher in the Sunnyside district starting this year, has been the new candidate most closely associated with Grijalva. He said of the present board, “I disagree with all of them in that they don’t work collaboratively enough. They don’t keep the students at the center. That’s what I think we’re missing the most, someone to remind everybody we’re here for the students.”
“I’ve heard a lot of things from Ms. Grijalva and would love to see her get back on the board, but I’m putting out my own message,” he said.
Robson has been on vacation in Europe, an ill-timed trip from the campaign point of view. But I was able to reach him in the middle of the night where he was when it was 5:30 p.m. in Tucson Monday.
“I’m not a captive. I’m not a pawn,” he said. “I want to work with everybody on the school board. Mark has some good ideas and others that in my opinion aren’t everything they could be.”
When I asked him to go into specifics about what he would like to make his top priority or important changes, Robson couldn’t come up with much. I wasn’t sure if it was because he hasn’t been campaigning, or if it was 2:30 in the morning there.
“I think we need to be more concerned about what’s happening with the kids,” he said, adding that the board has had too many 3-2 and 4-1 split votes.
Hicks, for his part, is proud of his role in the district, even though he has sometimes been rude, accusing the female board members of fighting so much that they appear to always be on “that day of the month.”
The three women on that board tend to fight a lot,” he explained to me Tuesday. “Not just in public, but out of the public. I think it’s detrimental to the district and the board. What I was getting at is that they’re at each other’s throats a lot.”
They have been, and the board has been notoriously dysfunctional, though the district is going through a somewhat smoother patch with Gabriel Trujillo as superintendent right now.
As good a case as Hicks and Grijalva may be able to make for themselves, it would be a missed opportunity if both are returned to the board, and it continues with its destructive dynamics. Some change would be really good. Maybe, maybe it would even break up the tradition of three-vote blocs running the board usually led by Grijalva or Stegeman.