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Stegeman resigns from TUSD Board after 11 years

Mark Stegeman, in his third term on the board of Tucson's largest school district, resigned effective immediately on Thursday, in an unexpected announcement.

Stegeman was first elected to the Governing Board of the Tucson Unified School District in 2008. He has at various times served as president of the board, and been at the center of many TUSD controversies over the past decade.

TUSD's board has been contentious during his time in office, with various shifting factions clashing over a series of issues.

"I made the decision more or less months ago" about resigning, he said. "I realized that I'm not the best spokesperson for the district," with TUSD not heading in a direction that he can support.

Stegeman, who has registered and un-registered as a Democrat during his time in the nonpartisan unpaid office, was an opponent of the district's Mexican American Studies program that was caught up in a lengthy court battle, and maneuvered to oust a previous superintendent during his terms.

Stegeman released the news on the Bill Buckmaster radio show just after noon Thursday, saying he had submitted his letter of resignation to Pima County Superintendent of Schools Dustin Williams.

He cited family responsibilities as one of his reasons for resigning.

"Every hour I spend on TUSD is an hour I don't spend on my two small kids," he told Buckmaster.

"The biggest reason is that I'm no longer confident, or see the path, to making TUSD the outstanding district I envision," he said.

"The dynamics of the board has been much better this year," Stegeman said, and "the superintendent (Gabriel Trujillo) has made a number of good changes."

"It's nice to have someone who has somewhat of a reform instinct," he said. The district needs "someone who is more confident in the district personally," he said.

Stegeman told Buckmaster that he doesn't see TUSD having success competing with charter schools in attracting students.

Preliminary enrollment numbers released Thursday show that TUSD had 169 fewer students this year than last on the 40th day of classes — a far smaller decline than the 1,418 student difference the year before. There were 44,309 students enrolled this semester.

Stegeman, who has been criticized for employing the "game theory" he studies as a University of Arizona economics professor in his dealings with the rest of the board, has been somewhat marginalized after the last election, unable to muster consistent support in his disagreements with other board members. In an interview with TucsonSentinel.com, Stegeman mocked that perception as "having no foundation."

Stegeman said Thursday that he was not planning to resign his teaching post: "UA is my paying job! I am not likely to leave that one."

He said he has no further political plans. "My plan is to catch up on the rest of my life. I don't know if there's anything in the long term."

Adelita Grijalva, the current president and a longtime Governing Board member and one who has frequently been on the opposite side of issues from Stegeman, said, "I appreciate the fact that he realizes that he is not the best spokesperson for the district."

"He has school-aged children in his home and does not have them in TUSD schools," she said.

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Stegeman told Buckmaster that his step-daughter attends a BASIS charter school and that the decision for her to not again attend TUSD was his wife's.

Grijalva said that "initially when he got on the board, he asked some very thoughtful questions, seeking to understand (issues)."

He then became "increasingly critical of the district," she said.

"When he is in a position of leadership, he has more positive things to say. When he's not, instantly the negatives start."

Kristel Foster, like Grijalva often at odds with Stegeman, said Thursday that "if you don't choose public schools for your own children and you don't believe that TUSD can succeed, than the right thing to do is step down and let someone who does serve in this seat."

Replacement to be appointed

Williams, the county school superintendent, will now appoint a replacement for Stegeman to serve through the balance of his term, ending at the end of 2020.

Under state law, county school superintendents fill vacancies on school boards, with appointees serving through the next regular general election. The district may submit a list of three suggestions of people who have expressed interest, but the superintendent has discretion to select another person as the appointee. The superintendent has the option of calling for a special election — something that former Supt. Linda Arzoumanian used as leverage to get the TUSD Board to follow the process she laid out during the last vacancy on that body.

"I would like to personally thank Dr. Stegeman for his service towards education in the Tucson Unified School District," Williams said in an emailed statement Thursday. "I wish him much success on his new endeavors. Our office will help expedite the Governing Board vacancy process going forward."

Williams hasn't yet detailed the process he'll follow in picking a replacement.

An election in November of next year will determine who will fill the seat for the next term.The five-member Governing Board is elected on a nonpartisan basis to four-year terms, on a staggered basis. Stegeman's term was due to end after the 2020 election. Also up for election next November will be Boardmembers Rachael Sedgwick, currently the board clerk, and Foster.

A TUSD board vacancy was last filled in 2012, when Alex Sugiyama was appointed after the death of Judy Burns.

Stegeman's resignation letter was brief:

Dustin, this note offers my resignation from the TUSD board, effective immediately. I will release a longer statement later today. Thanks for your ongoing work to support all Pima County school districts.  - Mark

Resignation not expected by others on TUSD Board

Boardmember Leila Counts said she was "very surprised" by the resignation. "I wish he would have finished his term as he was elected to do but I understand needing to put family first and ultimately respect his decision to resign."

Stegeman said on the radio Thursday that "part of the culture of the district is as a social service agency," and that TUSD "needs to get away from that."

His time on the board was like "chipping away at a huge rock," he said.

"We did do some stuff," but that moment has faded, Stegeman said, telling Buckmaster that he waited until this week to step down because there were a few things he still wanted to accomplish.

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One of those was revamping human resources polices around TUSD's "black list" of former employees — what Grijalva said was something he was "obsessed" with.

Grijalva said that the updated policy approved by the board Tuesday night means "both the district and employee are protected. There is specific language about rehire."

The black list was kept by several previous TUSD administrations, and included teachers who were secretly listed as not eligible to be hired back at any school in the district. Many teachers were never told why their names were included on the list, with some saying that it was retribution by principals and other administrators for being outspoken about district management.

"He's been leaving early from board meetings, not staying to discuss issues that are important to the district and have been historically important to him," Grijalva said. "He's been dogged on some issues over the years... but now, at 10 p.m., he leaves."

"If he knew that was going to be his last meeting, I wish he would've said something," Grijalva said. "Historically what we do is have a kind of 'thank you'" for departing board members.

"We have some recognition, a reception with cake... it's a way to exit gracefully," she said.

Stegeman told TucsonSentinel.com that "the timing was dictated by getting the do-not-hire thing done."

He also said he waited to resign until "getting the internal auditor back on track, and the Camp Cooper lease done. There was some resistance to giving the UA a long lease."

"I believe TUSD is capable of greatness, although people can define that in different ways," he said. "With the current management structure, it's very hard to get there."

"I'm not saying 'the heck with TUSD," he said. "A lot of people in TUSD are very good at what they do and have done it for not a lot of money."

Stegeman said in an afternoon phone interview that "my family won" when he weighed the commitment of spending another year in the elected post against more time with his family.

"My baby's seven months old," he said. "By the end of my term, she'd be nearly two years old. That's an important year."

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"To serve on the board effectively, I should be very much supportive of what the district is doing — or be able to pull it in the direction I think it should be moving," he said. "If I can't do that, somebody else should be on the board."

Stegeman said he had a number of things he would like to have accomplished, but was unable to during his time on the board, including changing compensation plans away from being based on seniority, especially for principals.

"We treat them like they're not managers," he said, describing the compensation of school administrators as "too rigid."

"The accountability structures are a bit too weak," he said.

"I fought for years to get higher pay for special ed teachers - and then science and math teachers," Stegeman said, also noting the challenge of reducing class sizes.

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 4 »

4
17 comments
Oct 4, 2019, 8:58 am
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Is it considered some kind of “objectivity” to quote extensively people who have given Dr. Stegeman significant trouble on the board under the guise of announcing his retirement? Seems like a very strange editorial choice. Listening to the interview with Bill Buckmaster, it seemed that Stegeman had good reasons to leave and the timing was dictated by policy, not by personalities, which is consistent with how his decisions were made on the Board. Despite my many disagreements with his policy choices, that quality will be sorely missed.

3
1 comments
Oct 3, 2019, 11:08 pm
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You have done a lot of great things for TUSD, and I hope many realize that. I respect your decision to spend time with your young children. That is time you cannot get back. A parent educator I know and respect recently told me, “parents are their children’s most important teachers,” and I think another great educator we both know, Georgia Brousseau, would probably agree with that, although she probably would have liked to consult with you on your recent decision, or at the very least share her opinion. Parenting is our greatest charge and obligation, and their are no licenses or manuals ... only time, care and commitment… and shameless plug… excellent Stay & Play series at Arizona’s Children’s Association! Join us for Stay and Play now that you will have some time!!!

2
19 comments
Oct 3, 2019, 7:51 pm
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It may be worth pointing out that on primary election night Foster and Grijalva walked out of a board meeting at about 8:30, in the middle of a budget study session.

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Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.com

Stegeman in 2012