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TUSD board delays vote on Sup't Sanchez's job — again

After meeting behind closed doors for about three hours, and listening to community members for nearly an hour, the TUSD Governing Board announced Tuesday they were putting off a public decision on whether to fire Superintendent H.T. Sanchez. Attorneys were told to continue discussions.

While Governing Board members are barred by law from revealing the discussions held in executive session, their public statements have shown they are split on retaining or firing Sanchez.

Board President Mike Hicks, generally allied with Mark Stegeman, one of the members who's pushed to oust the superintendent, said after the meeting that "I'm hopeful we can have something done by next week."

Hicks hasn't indicated if he's pushing to force out Sanchez, but given that the closed-door moves by lawyers are continuing, it's apparent that there is a Board consensus to remove the superintendent.

That stance has been most publicly pushed by new Boardmember Rachael Sedgwick, who was elected in November.

Sedgwick put an item on the Feb. 14 agenda to fire Sanchez with little more than 24 hours notice, but couldn't find enough support to remove him after a closed-door meeting that night.

Sanchez's supporters on the Board — Adelita Grijalva and Kristel Foster — rallied public support for him last week, and again Tuesday night. Of 48 people who asked to speak during the call to the audience, some 44 were Sanchez supporters.

"I'll continue to work hard" in the meantime, Sanchez said after the meeting. Under his contract, which runs through June 2018, he would be due a payout of about $500,000 if the Board were to fire him without cause.

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The five-member Board had first discussed Sanchez's continued employment as the head of Tucson's largest school district last week, but delayed a decision. Sedgwick and Stegeman placed the matter on the agenda of the special meeting called for this week.

After the 4.5-hour meeting, Sedgwick said that "it takes time" and that the Board is "working in the most effective way possible."

Tuesday, the Governing Board hired two outside law firms to represent the district in dealings with Sanchez over his contract, choosing two sets of attorneys because the divided Board couldn't agree on a single firm.

The Board then meet in executive session for nearly three hours, as about 150 people in the meeting room at Duffy Community Center, 5145 E. Fifth St., waited for the public portion of the meeting to begin. Several dozen more stood outside.

Boardmembers then heard about an hour of public input, with disagreements between them about how many people to allow to address the meeting. Grijalva pushed to let each of the nearly 50 people who had submitted cards requesting a slot the opportunity to speak for three minutes.

"They waited for us; I'm happy to wait for them," she said. But Grijalva could only garner support from Foster for the open-ended call to the public.

The agenda had called for only 20-minute call to the audience, but on Sedgwick's motion that was extended to allow the 10 people who had phoned in to request the chance to speak a turn at the lectern. Despite boos and shouts to allow more to speak, the call to the audience was ended after about an hour.

After a series of community members presented impassioned arguments for keeping or firing Sanchez, Hicks announced that the Board would not vote on the matter Tuesday, but instead that attorneys were instructed "to proceed as directed" during the closed-door session that began the meeting.

The Board will hold another meeting next Tuesday night, with Sanchez's job again on the agenda.

To close the meeting, boardmembers bickered over a proposal by Sedgwick to recruit an panel of experts to conduct an anonymous survey about TUSD, without involving the district's administration.

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Foster repeatedly said she didn't understand the details of the proposal, while Sedgwick grew increasingly animated.

"Why have a survey after a conversation to remove our superintendent?" Foster rhetorically asked. Sedgwick responded by reading the entirety of the agenda item, noting that it allowed for the "discussion/consideration/action regarding employment, assignment, appointment, promotion, demotion, dismissal, salaries, disciplining or resignation of a public officer."

The discussion almost completely broke down while Hicks was absent from the dais for a few minutes, with a visibly exasperated Stegeman attempted to calm tensions. Foster eventually walked out of the meeting while the conversation briefly continued. Sedgwick's survey proposal failed on a tie 2-2 vote, with Hicks and Grijalva voting no.

Hicks then quickly declared the meeting adjourned.

"I think we did some very strong work tonight," said Stegeman, who like the other members of the Board declined to detail any of the discussions from the executive sessions.

Sanchez, who is paid a base salary of $270,000 and a substantial benefit and incentive package to lead the district of about 50,000 students, was hired in 2013 to fill a spot left vacant after the sudden resignation of John Pedicone, who quit with more than a year his contract.

Prior to Pedicone, the TUSD superintendent's chair was filled by Stan Paz, Roger Pfeuffer, Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, and interim chief John Carroll.

Pedicone's predecessor, Celania-Fagen, also left the district early in her contract. She resigned from TUSD in 2010 after less than two years on the job, citing Arizona's cuts in education budgets for her move to a superintendent's post in Colorado.

Like the superintendents before him, Sanchez's tenure has been marked by controversies over the district's four-decade-old desegregation plan, budget challenges and declining enrollment. Unlike the ethnic studies issue that stirred passions under Pedicone, there hasn't been a single flash point for those who want Sanchez removed from his post.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Superintendent H.T. Sanchez will have to wait at least another week for a public vote on his job.