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Posted Feb 16, 2017, 7:00 pm
A week from now, if TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez spends his day packing his office into cardboard boxes it will be because he's out of touch with voters. It won't be because a new school board member got silly.
Rachael Sedgwick remains steadfast in her determination to make a change at the top of the Tucson Unified School District – the nature of that change is up to the guy who now runs the district.
Sedgwick, elected to the Governing Board last November, screwed up the game-changing process. That's a rookie mistake but she is a rookie. She played Agenda Gotcha trying to sneak a fast one past the public by giving barely 24 hours notice that she wanted to discuss Superintendent H.T. Sanchez's fate at a meeting Tuesday night.
“I got bad advice and took it,” she said, during a phone interview Thursday morning. Hell yes, you did. Never try to short-circuit the public process. It looks bad, solves nothing and undercuts public faith in the board.
A quick strike is tempting because it gives opponents less time to rally that opposition. However, that opposition ain't going anywhere and will always be able to say “even if you agree with what she did, you have to admit she did it wrong.”
A week's lead time doesn't preclude a clean kill. But Machiavellian maneuvers will forever muddy the move. And it wasn't her only screw up in her first 50 days on the board. It wasn't even her worst.
She pulled the item from the agenda prior to the meeting, but will put Sanchez's fate back before the Governing Board at a special meeting next Tuesday. The firing of Sanchez and TUSD's general counsel, Todd Jaeger, is the only item on the agenda, put there by Sedgwick and fellow board member Mark Stegeman.
Realtors may want to hand Sanchez their cards. He's in a lot of trouble. Sedgwick has lost confidence in him. Board members Michael Hicks and Stegeman seem to have lost that faith a good way back. That's a majority.
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He has until Tuesday to fix it and and Sedgwick's “it” is the information flow and I know what she is talking about in general terms.
Power of information
TUSD runs under a corporate model where the school board are the directors and the superintendent is the CEO. Technically, the superintendent works for the board and the board stays out of the daily operations of individual department heads or those deeper down in the bureaucracy.
Practically, this gives the superintendent the de facto power to run the board. Elected leaders worldwide gripe that staff tries to control them through information.
Specifically, Sedgwick's been trying to get unvarnished information about the district's enrollment and even Sanchez's calendar. Instead she feels like she's being spun.
“Superintendent Sanchez doesn't have a functioning relationship with the board,” Sedgwick said. “He's either got to fix that, resign or ...”
Sanchez says "the numbers are the numbers" as far as enrollment goes and denies trying to spin the board. Regardless, the board majority ain't happy.
The real-world effectiveness of a school superintendent, county administrator, university president or city manager depends entirely on maintaining majority support among the body that hired them.
The superintendent had enjoyed the support of board members Adelita Grijalva, Kristel Foster and Cam Juarez.
Then there was an election. Juarez lost. Sedgwick won. Sanchez today can't count three supporters on a five-member board. That's fatal and to his credit, Sanchez knows that.
"A contract is a contract and that's my agreement with the board," Sanchez said. "If they want to go in another direction that's their decision."
Without cause, what the board can't do is void the next 17 months of salary and benefits it owes Sanchez. That tab could easily push a half-million bucks, with his $240,000 annual salary, the payout of unused sick-time, assorted car and technology benefits and the rest of the package.
To justify his position, Sanchez points to his accomplishments like the district's healthy finances and that he was named one of the nations top 25 superintendents to watch.
Good for him. Seriously. Be your own best advocate. He knows how to fix things with Sedgwick. I think it's fixable. We'll see if he tries.
It's more than kissing ass. The voters 86ed one of Sanchez's key supporters and elected a critic. The voters fired that shot across the bow, not the new board member. Sedgwick is just the manifestation of the general will and she's drawn a lot of ire for understanding that political reality.
The real Rachael Sedgwick ...
“Just who the hell is this woman?”
That's the question people involved with the district have been asking since her surprise victory in November. She was the candidate with the least money and institutional backing. She won anyway.
Klaxon alarms were sounded all over town because Sedgwick might be one of those know-nothing wacktivists driven into politics more concerned about hemp, gun confiscation and chemtrail drone strikes than students and teachers. Turns out she is a former teacher who knows her stuff and had a good sense of what she wants to accomplish.
I wrote about how I was impressed and remain so.
She's a political novice with a big brain and enigmatic tendencies. I like that. She's finding the crosscurrents and turbulence involved with school board life daunting. I understand that. She came out of nowhere to win, which means she doesn't have a natural constituency. I admire that and sympathize with someone stepping into the breach all by her lonesome.
In my Devilish opinion, schools and teaching must radically be remade to fit the new economy and modern world. We're not industrial/agrarian anymore and that changes everything. So I admit when I talk to Sedgwick I spend a lot more time thinking “yeah, and ...” rather than “yeah, but ...”. She wants to see changes made but also speaks with unyielding empathy for teachers and students.
Liberal and conservative labels don't seem to apply to TUSD, where the board seems more divided into camps of disruptors like Stegeman and Hicks and defenders like Grijalva and Foster. The disruptors want to change how business is done at the district because the district isn't succeeding as it should. The defenders see the district as fighting the good fight, as public education itself is under attack.
Sedgwick is a disruptor but gets frustrated with people calling her part of Team StegaHicks.
When she says “I'm with Stegeman and Hicks,” she does it with a frustrated irony because she thinks she'll have plenty in common with Grijalva and Foster. She says it but means the opposite.
Well, that snark already has presented a much bigger problem for Sedgwick than simply the prospect of firing a superintendent.
White supremacy does not rule
Sedgwick said it was with similar frustrated irony that, during a contentious meeting with a constituent, she said “white supremacy rules” as a smart-ass response to a guy who kept inserting the term “white supremacists” into the conversation. The exchange made it to social media in about 15 nanoseconds and now she's got a white supremacy problem.
To be clear, there are no worse problems to have in Tucson politics than a “White Supremacy Problem.”
Sedgwick said she was goaded into it by her constituent repeatedly interjecting “the white supremacists” whenever she mentioned Stegeman and Hicks. She got sardonically dismissive and wound up with a quote that was primed to make the rounds on Facebook.
In my experience, not a wisp, not a trace, not a sprinkle of white supremacy litters her language. Sedgwick supports ethnic studies, worked in South America and was raised in Nogales. She calls herself Latino by culture if not by race. On the other hand, a white guy vouching for her isn't going to help her out.
Really, if I thought we had a white supremacist on the TUSD Governing Board, I would not waste your time discussing "information flow."
Her version of the story makes much more sense than the idea that she is a cheerleader for the Klan, but that was a fantastically stupid thing to say to a person with such an obvious agenda. She'll get past it when she proves herself past it.
Such is life in local politics, and as a lifelong smart-ass I can wholly commiserate with the notion that something stupid got said to the wrong audience.
Stumble then sprint
Sedgwick's early stumbles remind me of others' early screw ups. Pima County Supervisor Mike Boyd threw his full support behind Ed Moore's jihad against county employees. Supervisor Sharon Bronson was advised to declare war on fellow Democrat Raul Grijalva during her first year in office. City Councilman Paul Cunningham got drunk on a city trip to San Diego and behaved so inappropriately he required sensitivity training. In each of these cases, the politicos got over it by changing course and fessing up to the mistake. Sedgwick has too.
She's fessed up and said she'll err on the side of openness, and that is crucial.
Firing Sanchez isn't necessarily a mistake. It's her prerogative, if she gets a majority of the board to vote with her. He's not a bad superintendent by any stretch but he's not kicking ass to the degree that may be necessary.
That's no bust on Sanchez. TUSD is a tough, tough nut to crack. No. It's an effing bi-atch. His predecessor John Pedicone worked wonders in Flowing Wells Unified School District and broke himself apart on the rocks of TUSD's bureaucracy. Elizabeth Celania-Fagen was a superstar-in-the-making before smashing headlong into this district.
Still, Juarez wasn't offed in a palace coup. Sedgwick didn't maraud her way onto the dias at 1010 E. 10th Street. Hicks and Stegeman didn't build Sedgwick in a university lab. The voters put her there. The board represents the public. The superintendent serves at the pleasure of the board.
Contract or no contract, Sanchez has no business sticking around if he doesn't have the support of the duly elected board. Parting ways — and forking over that cash — may be the only way to move ahead.
Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.