Less than two months after accusations that a member of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board harassed a longtime district employee became public, the Governing Board is considering slicing that employee’s pay.
And Mary Alice Wallace, the 27-year district employee, said the move is a clear act of retaliation by the board.
The TUSD Governing Board voted Tuesday to have the human resources department review Wallace’s $79,000 salary, singling her out as a possible place to cut from a pool of thousands of employees.
Earlier this year, Wallace, the director of staff services for the Governing Board, filed a hostile workplace complaint against Governing Board Member Rachael Sedgwick, alleging Sedgwick made a series of “unfounded accusations, threats, attempts to intimidate, and created a hostile work environment for me.”
TUSD Governing Board Member Mark Stegeman, who proposed the salary review, said that the district has serious budget problems and is asking other departments to review their budgets to find areas to cut. He argued that the Governing Board, which has just a handful of employees under its discretion, should set an example and do the same, starting with its highest paid employee. He said he wanted a neutral review from HR about whether the salary is fair.
But Stegeman didn’t ask for a review of all governing board employee salaries — only Wallace’s.
That, he acknowledged after the meeting, was a mistake. Stegeman said he should have called for a review of all governing board employees to avoid the appearance of retaliation.
But he stood by the decision to review Wallace’s salary, saying he has received repeated questions from the public about it.
“The optics of asking the rest of the district to cut $4.5 million dollars while we don’t do diddly squat is worse,” he said, adding that filing a complaint shouldn’t protect an employee from having their salary reviewed.
The district is facing an estimated shortfall of between $4.5 million and $6 million that must be cut from this year’s budget due to declining enrollment.
Sedgwick, who seconded Stegeman’s motion to review Wallace’s salary, said her history with Wallace had no bearing on her vote. Sedgwick said she had no obligation to abstain from the vote, in light of the hostile workplace complaint Wallace filed against her. Governing Board Member Michael Hicks also voted for the review.
“The allegation that this is in any way some sort of a witch hunt that has anything to do with me is ridiculous,” Sedgwick said.
Board Members Kristel Foster and Adelita Grijalva didn’t see it that way, and accused the board majority of retaliating against a stellar employee, and opening the district up to a possible lawsuit.
Foster said the move was a clear attempt to intimidate Wallace and force her to retire, which could open the district up to claims of retaliation or age discrimination.
Foster offered a substitute motion to review salaries at all administrative positions, but the board majority shot that down.
“This is someone who has been with the district for 27 years, and has received stellar evaluations from everyone, not just me,” Grijalva said.
She noted that when she was first elected to the board 15 years ago, the Governing Board office had seven employees.
“You continue to ask ‘what do you do, what do you do?’ But you still expect people to answer the phones,” Grijalva told Stegeman.
Grijalva said the legal bill for dealing with Wallace’s complaint against Sedgwick was $20,000. And she said the lawyers they hired advised that the board should not have any employees under its discretion, and should instead move those handful of employees under the district superintendent’s jurisdiction, like all other district employees.
“We went against legal advice that we paid for,” Grijalva said.
Stegeman said he couldn’t respond to that claim because that information came from a discussion in executive session, which is legally supposed to be kept secret. Stegeman said he wasn’t defending Sedgwick’s behavior, but the lawyers’ report said Sedgwick didn’t violate the law.
Asked if she thought the move was retaliation for her hostile workplace complaint, Wallace didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s a thinly veiled threat.”