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TUSD taps inside candidate as interim sup't

Trujillo named temporary district head, Board to solicit consultants for assist with search

After 30 days without a superintendent, and some hiccups and false starts along the way, TUSD's Governing Board on Tuesday picked a current administrator to run Tucson's largest district for the time being. They unanimously voted to name Gabriel Trujillo, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, to run the district as the search for a permanent head gets under way

The top post in TUSD was vacant after H.T. Sanchez resigned last month with a $200,000 payout to settle contract issues.

Trujillo will be paid a prorated salary of $200,000 to serve until June 30. The district will also cover his professional expenses. He will continue to receive the same benefits as in his administrative post — a job he will keep under the contract that begins Wednesday.

Despite not yet being on the clock as the superintendent, Trujillo immediately took to the dais during the meeting after the Governing Board's vote Tuesday evening.

"I trust my services will be needed fairly quickly," he said as he took a seat in the district chief's chair.

"We had a difficult six weeks," said Boardmember Mark Stegeman, who had long favored Sanchez's departure. "I’m confident that TUSD is headed to a better place," he said.

Boardmember Kristel Foster, who had supported Sanchez, said that she welcomed the appointment.

"Dr. Trujillo has been a part of a lot of the work that has happened this year," she said.

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Boardmember Adelita Grijalva, the previous Board president and also a strong proponent of keeping Sanchez, said she thanked Trujillo "for his willingness to come forward to serve."

Rachael Sedgwick, a new Board member whose November election shifted the alignment on the five-member body regarding Sanchez's continuing tenure, said she hopes the district can now "finish the school year very strong" with the pick.

Trujillo was hired as an assistant superintendent last year, after working as a high school principal and administrator for Phoenix Union High School District.

The divided Board had previously been unable to tap an interim administrator for the district, despite multiple meetings to discuss the options. At one point, the district had been set to hire two temporary administrators, at an annualized cost of nearly $400,000 plus benefits.

Just less than two weeks ago, the night before the Governing Board was set to approve a contract to hire former district administrator Maggie Shafer as the interim superintendent, she withdrew her name from consideration. TUSD was set to hire her, along with a deputy she hand-picked, to run the district through June after Sanchez's resignation.

Shafer pulled her name as the person to be hired for the post following TucsonSentinel.com's report that the district appears to have broken state open meeting laws in the process of negotiating a deal to hire a deputy to work for her.

She was the sole candidate interviewed in person for the interim job at a meeting earlier that week, district sources said.

The Board had scheduled a March 17 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 that week, the matter of the deputy appointment had never appeared on a prior meeting agenda. The names of the two intended hires were added to the agenda for the meeting after TucsonSentinel.com's report that Shafer would be given a contract, and that an agreement had been negotiated with a deputy without such a position having ever appeared on an agenda for Board discussion. The Board had recently been ordered by the state attorney general to attend a class on open meeting laws because of previous infractions.

The meeting, announced on the morning of March 16, was called off that night after Shafer told district officials she no longer wanted the post.

If the Board had approved the deal, Shafer would have been paid based on a pro-rated basis of a $239,200 annual salary, while her new deputy — Teri Melendez, a former district administrator —was to be paid on the basis of a $144,000 annual salary plus a $3,000 "stipend." Shafer would have been eligible for a $3,750 "performance stipend," and both were to be provided extensive district benefits in contracts that were to run through June 30.

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Trujillo's pay will be temporarily bumped to a prorated share of $200,000 per year. His salary as an assistant superintendent was not immediately available from district officials. With the district having yet to begin searching for a permanent superintendent, it's likely that a clause in his contract allowing for an extension past June 30 will be invoked.

In search of

While the Governing Board was unanimous in picking Trujillo, the members showed their usual division in a discussion of how to move ahead with hiring a superintendent.

They quibbled over how to even approach a search. Stegeman suggested that Board President Michael Hicks, his frequent ally over the last several years, be empowered to review local consultants and make a suggestion to the Board about whom to hire to assist in vetting candidates.

Foster and Grijalva questioned why a more standard procurement process wouldn't be used to pick a consultant, with Foster pushing to hire a headhunting firm to conduct a national search.

"I'm not convinced .. that we got a great deal of value out of an external firm" in previous searches for top administrators, Stegeman said.

Foster said she was seeing "red flags about .... decisions (that) have already been been made, people have already been contacted" about the post, raising concerns about "transparency" with no search firm involved.

In the process that resulted in Sanchez's hiring, he was the only candidate publicly announced before he was hired. The Board had short-listed three others, whose identities were kept confidential until a judge ruled that the district was illegally refusing to disclose their names after a public records lawsuit was filed by the Arizona Daily Star.

Foster said during Tuesday night's meeting that she was "concerned about a lack of people in the community who stood up and showed an interest in the interim position," and how that may reflect the pool of local candidates for the permanent superintendent post.

Grijalva also expressed worries that a local consultant would mean only local candidates would end up being considered for the job.

"I don't want to limit us," she said.

Sedgwick said there were "as many as 20 people" who expressed interest but weren't seriously considered for the interim job because they live outside Tucson.

"Bringing somebody new into the district at this point would've been far more complicated," she said.

"My main concern is that we get on this quickly," Stegeman said.

He amended his motion to allow for consultants to be solicited by the district's procurement department as well as directly by Hicks. Grijalva and Foster voted against the move, with Stegeman, Hicks and Sedgwick passing it.

Sanchez ousted a month ago

Sanchez stepped down on Feb. 28, with the split Board looking to push him out.

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.

That 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 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.

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 was 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 wasn't 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.

Two other TUSD administrators vying for Amphi post

Two administrators for TUSD are competing to become the chief of the neighboring Amphitheater Unified School District. Abel Morado, TUSD assistant superintendent, and Todd Jaeger, a former Amphi administrator who's now TUSD's general counsel, have been named the finalists to replace retiring Amphi Superintendent Patrick Nelson.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Interim TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo listens to frequent Governing Board candidate Betts Putnam-Hidalgo speak about the district's decades-old desegregation case during the call to the audience after his appointment Tuesday night.