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TUSD set to hire interim leaders after apparent open meeting law violation

The TUSD Governing Board has scheduled a Friday-afternoon meeting to approve contracts for an interim superintendent and deputy superintendent for the school district. But, although the Board discussed superintendent candidates at a closed-door meeting earlier this week, the matter of the deputy appointment never appeared on a prior meeting agenda.

The Board is set to offer a short-term contract to head up the district to a former assistant superintendent at TUSD, Maggie Shafer. Also set to be hired is Teri Melendez, a former district administrator, as Shafer's deputy.

Update: Shafer withdraws as candidate for TUSD interim sup't

The names of the two candidates were added to the agenda for the meeting Friday after TucsonSentinel.com's Thursday morning report that Shafer would be hired, and that a contract had been negotiated with a deputy without such a position having ever appeared on an agenda for Board discussion.

The contracts to be offered both would run through June 30. If the Board approves, Shafer will be paid based on a pro-rated basis of a $239,200 annual salary, while Melendez will be paid on the basis of a $144,000 annual salary plus a $3,000 "stipend." Shafer will be eligible for a $3,750 "performance stipend," and both will provided extensive district benefits.

The top post in Tucson's largest district is vacant after H.T. Sanchez was pushed out, resigning last month with a $200,000 payout to settle contract issues.

Shafer was interviewed by the Board during an executive session on Monday. She left a position as the district's overseer of K-8 and preschool education in 2013 to work for the University of Arizona. In 2010, she served as TUSD's acting superintendent prior to John Pedicone being hired to head the district.

While the discussion of candidates for the interim superintendent post appeared on the agenda for Monday's meeting, there was no item allowing discussion of hiring a deputy superintendent.

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The Board is legally restricted from discussing or taking action on items that do not appear on public agendas.

Shafer "specifically requested" that Melendez be hired, agenda documents prepared by TUSD counsel Todd Jaeger said.

Melendez, a longtime principal at district schools, served as director of elementary schools for several years, and then interim assistant superintendent of elementary and K-8 leadership for TUSD in 2014.

The agenda for Friday's meeting includes items allowing the approval of contracts for both an interim superintendent and deputy superintendent. After TucsonSentinel.com reported about the apparent opening meeting law violation Thursday morning, the agenda was updated to include an executive session with discussions of both positions. A later update included information on the contracts awaiting Board approval.

As members of the Board are legally barred from detailing discussions held in executive session, none of the five members would comment directly on whether potential deputy candidates were reviewed during the closed-door meeting earlier this week. Boardmembers Mark Stegeman, Kristel Foster and Adelita Grijalva acknowledged that the topic had not been included on previous agendas. Board President Michael Hicks and Boardmember Rachael Sedgwick didn't immediately respond to questions.

"I think that's an important question," Boardmember Kristel Foster said when asked whether the Board had broken Arizona's open meeting laws.

"Without saying anything about what happened in that executive session, it may be worth pointing out that an agenda posting limits the speech of Board members but does not limit the speech of others who happen to be present," Stegeman said.

A complaint about open meeting violations filed by Stegeman and Hicks with the Arizona Attorney General's Office in December 2015 led to the Board — which at the time was controlled by a majority that included Grijalva and Foster — being sanctioned for breaking the law last year. Board members were told to attend public training on state laws regarding open meetings.

Thursday, Stegeman did not directly respond to questions about whether the Board discussed reviewed candidates for a deputy position, or who was authorized to negotiate the contract that is set to be voted on Friday afternoon.

He said he wasn't involved in contract discussions with a candidate, and that "there are a number of ways that could happen without it being an open meeting law violation."

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"I can understand how you might find that highly suspicious, though," Stegeman said.

Grijalva said that "a lot of people dropped out" of the search for an interim superintendent, with several stating that they weren't interested despite having been placed on a list of potential hires by members of the Board.

TUSD has not released a list of the candidates for either the interim superintendent nor interim deputy jobs.

The Board has yet to discuss a process for finding a long-term replacement for the district's top job. The updated agenda includes a study item on the process for appointing a new superintendent that was requested by Grijalva and Stegeman.

Grijalva, who with Foster had opposed the move by Stegeman, Hicks and the newly elected Sedgwick to fire or push out Sanchez as superintendent, said, "We're really missing a big opportunity right now... We've not talked about it at all."

Grijalva said she questions the wisdom of offering only a short-term contract to an interim superintendent, as that makes it likely another interim would need to be tapped before a permanent hire is made. She noted that none of the other deputy superintendents had resigned, so offering a contract to another "would add more administration" to the district.

Stegeman also said the district needs to move "ASAP" on hiring a long-term superintendent.

"I requested that we have that item on Friday's agenda," he said. "I want to get on that."

Sanchez resigned on Feb. 28, with the split Board looking to oust him.

He left with an agreement that would 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 that night to accept Sanchez's resignation and approve the separation agreement. He had 16 months to run on his contract, which paid him a base salary of $270,000.

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.

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.

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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.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Shafer’s last name in several places.

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Mar 16, 2017, 4:58 pm
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All 5 are crooked.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Hicks and Stegeman during a Feb. 28 meeting.