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$200K payout as Sanchez resigns from TUSD

Board cites 'confidentiality' in not commenting on details of deal

With a split Governing Board looking to oust him, Tucson Unified School District Superintendent H.T. Sanchez resigned Tuesday, with an agreement that will pay him $200,000 to walk away from the district — and binds board members with confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses.

The Board voted 3-2 to accept Sanchez's resignation and approve the separation agreement. The superintendent of Tucson's largest school district had 16 months to run on his contract, which paid him a base salary of $270,000.

Sanchez's resignation was effective immediately, and his spot on the dais next to the board members was vacant Tuesday night but for the desk sign bearing his name. He will be paid the severance due within 10 days.

The vote was split along expected lines, with the pair of board members who favored keeping Sanchez in place — Adelita Grijalva and Kristel Foster — voting no.

Board President Mike Hicks, and Boardmembers Mark Stegeman and Rachael Sedgwick, voted in favor of Sanchez leaving.

Sedgwick, a newcomer to the Board who was elected in November, had joined with Stegeman in pushing to remove Sanchez.

The vote followed a closed-door Board meeting that lasted a bit more than an hour. That executive session was the third in as many weeks, as the board members have conferred with attorneys who, along with Hicks, hashed out the deal for Sanchez's resignation out of the public eye.

The terms of the separation agreement weren't publicly spelled out at the meeting, and board members declined to comment in detail about the deal, citing a confidentiality clause. Under the contract, Sanchez could sue if any member of the Board spoke negatively about him — and they would be personally liable for any damages.

The deal, which Grijalva described as a "compromise," was a middle path between paying off the approximately $500,000 Sanchez would be due under his contract, or firing him for cause but likely triggering an expensive lawsuit that could cost the district even more. In addition to the lump sum, Sanchez will be paid whatever salary and benefits he was due through Tuesday, officials said.

The deal also includes a clause that prohibits any member of the Governing Board from "making derogatory statements" about Sanchez —effectively gagging those who pushed to fire Sanchez or have him resign from future comments about their reasons for wanting to remove the superintendent.

Stegeman conferred with the district's chief counsel, Todd Jaeger, several times as he was pressed by reporters about the contract, and declined to discuss the terms on Jaeger's advice.

"I would not have drafted it that way," Stegeman said of the clauses he said precluded him from discussing the deal.

"Adelita and I were not a part of any of this," Foster said when asked about the terms of the resignation deal.

The other board members also declined to answer questions about the $200,000 deal.

Although district staff initially dragged their feet about releasing the terms of the deal, which were not disclosed to the audience of about 180 people during the meeting at Duffy Community Center, 5145 E. Fifth St., pressure by reporters from TucsonSentinel.com and the Arizona Daily Star resulted in the public record being provided Tuesday night.

The contract says that "Except as required by applicable law, no details of this Agreement will be shared with other parties except with legal counsel, for tax advice and/or with a financial planner for financial advice, as necessary. In the event disclosure is required, it shall be limited to the maximum extent possible."

Under Arizona law, such a contract is a public record and cannot be kept secret; it must be released on request.

Sanchez and the three board members who voted in favor of the deal signed the contract, including the individual non-disparagement clause. Grijalva and Foster did not.

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During the meeting, Foster and Grijalva made passionate defenses of Sanchez's nearly four-year tenure at TUSD before the vote on the resignation package was taken.

"Game theory, Dr. Stegeman, and racial politics got in our way," Foster said, referencing Stegeman's work as an economics professor at the University of Arizona. "Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks, you led the charge to dismantle our successful Mexican American Studies program before I was here. ... And now, behind closed doors, you coaxed our newpro-charter, racially charged school board member into joining you to build an unbound case against our successful superintendent."

"In my opinion, it has been a witch hunt after our superintendent," Grijalva said.

"This is going to have a chilling effect on our district. The problem here is that if you disagree with any member on this Board, you could be facing termination. The example has been set" with Sanchez being pushed out, she said.

Addressing those who called for Sanchez's firing, Grijalva said, "I hope you have your pound of flesh today."

"Who on Earth will come lead our district and take the reins of this organization now?" Foster asked.

Sedgwick addressed the comments by Foster, saying "I take great offense to the suggestion that I am in any way racist or not pro-social justice. I am dedicated to social justice in TUSD."

Stegeman — who has given voice to critics of TUSD who claim that the district's administration has stifled teachers and staff with implied threats to their jobs — addressed Grijalva's comments about retaliation, saying, "I want to state emphatically, and I believe I represent most of the Board in this view, that retaliation is completely unacceptable and it will be a priority for me to strengthen the protections employees have."

Sanchez sent a letter to district teachers and staff Tuesday, saying, "Regardless of the outcome of tonight's meeting, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you. Let me begin by simply saying — You are amazing. You embody the best of Tucson. It has been an honor to serve as superintendent of TUSD. You go above and beyond to do great work for our students and their families. I will not forget the many of you who sat down with me or stopped me in a hallway to share your ideas, concerns or aspirations. I have enjoyed the classroom visits, the opportunities to read to our students, and the lessons I learned from our conversations. The Tucson community is truly blessed by you, and I know that, personally, as you have positively touched the lives of my entire family."

The five-member Board had discussed Sanchez's continued employment for two Tuesday nights running, but delayed a decision. Sedgwick and Stegeman placed the matter on the agenda of the special meeting called for this week.

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

Sanchez, who was 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. Some teachers claimed misappropriation of Prop. 301 funds that were supposed to find their way to the classroom, and other opponents pointed to the recent loss of desegregation magnet status at a number of schools.

Sedgwick had pointed to teacher turnover as one of her top concerns about Sanchez's tenure, while Stegeman has long expressed concern about declining enrollment in the district's schools.

Supporters of Sanchez's work pointed to his efforts at reducing the drop-out rate and building connections between TUSD and the business community.

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In the search for a new superintendent, Hicks pledged to "have more public input" than past recruiting efforts for the district's CEO. "We want input, and we'll give people 2-3 choices to meet with," he said.

"Right now is when superintendents are looking for jobs," Hicks said, responding to concerns expressed by Foster and Grijalva that the middle of the school year was a bad time to lose a superintendent.

During the call to the audience, Natalie Luna, a TUSD mother, expressed a similar concern during the call to the audience following the vote.

"You're leaving a district without a leader in the middle of the school year — who does that? What's Plan B? It's like the Republicans trying to get rid of Obamacare. There's nothing," she said.

"You own this now," Luna told the board members who voted for the deal with Sanchez.

Betts Putnam Hidalgo, who has come up short in a couple of attempts to be elected to the TUSD Board, dismissed calls by some to recall the board members opposed to Sanchez during her three minutes during the call to the public.

"That will guarantee that no one will focus on our kids," she said. "They don't have time for the b.s."

Several TUSD parents who spoke during the audience call voiced support for a resolution put forth by Foster, reiterating TUSD's support for transgender students.

Foster said she was moved to have the Board again make a statement because of the Trump administration's recent move to rescind Obama administration guidance under Title IX that advised schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice.

That statement, which repeated the Board's support of previously enacted anti-discrimination policies that cover gender identity and expression, was edited by members of the Board during the meeting. Hicks and Stegeman questioned whether a specific reference to Trump as a politician was appropriate. Sedgwick agreed, and pointed out that a grammatically tangled sentence in the proposed resolution made it read as if Trump supported protections for transgender students.

The Board didn't prepare a clean copy of the resolution, and ended up voting unanimously for a version that, despite the intention of reiterating support for transgender students, did not include the word "transgender."

"I was not going to vote against it" despite the change to eliminate Trump, Foster said, although she said she would have preferred that it remain, citing more than 20 other school districts which have recently declared support for transgender protections.

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have your say   

1 comment on this story

Mar 6, 2017, 7:16 pm
-0 +0

$200,000 was much less than half of Sanchez’s remaining contract.

Paying Superintendent Sanchez $200,000 to leave was cheap compared to keeping him. The four remaining months for 2016-17 could have cost TUSD $155,000 to $187,000. The cost for the last year of his contract would have been $505,000 to $552,000. The total wouldn’t have been far from three quarters of a million dollars.

Those compensations costs don’t include the continuing damage to TUSD.

Lillian Fox.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Hicks and Stegeman during Tuesday's meeting.