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Opinion

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What the Devil won't tell you

Stop the insanity: TUSD eschews the easy for the scandalous in Sanchez battle

Superintendent's contract a small price to pay to avoid protracted legal fight

No one worry. It's going to be fine. Rest easy. Lawyers are now in charge.

That passage – never before written in the English language – describes how the TUSD Governing Board has taken a tough but legit decision to fire the superintendent and turned it into a budding political disaster.

Should Sanchez be fired? That's another column. Should the school board deal with its top cop like this? Absolutely not.

Tuesday, the board held a second meeting where the firing of Sanchez was to be discussed but then was pulled at T-minus-zero-three before launch. So we're going on to a third meeting full of public outrage and closed-door shenanigans.

This time, they are going to follow legal counsel's advice to make sure their butts are covered. In fact, the divided Board is so concerned about CYA that they hired two different outside law firms to represent them in dealings with Sanchez.

But, someone needs to tell those lawyers about the price the Board is paying right now by keeping the public in the dark about Sanchez's fate is much higher than the $500,000 the district may have to pay him to wind up his contract.

Read more: TUSD board delays vote on Sup't Sanchez's job — again

I really hope the lawyers are just negotiating a deal buyout lower than the 17 months remaining on Sanchez's contract. If they are getting trickier than that, then we've got problems. We've got problems even if they are just negotiating because the public is locked out of the rooms where decisions are being made. TUSD doesn't have this kind of goodwill to burn. Public perception is a much bigger issue facing the Board than the I's and T's of a Sanchez's contract so job one of the new Board majority is to stop looking fishy.

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The new dysfunction is utterly unnecessary because the school board is free to make a change, move on and chart a new course. What they can't do is try to make a change and ignore Sanchez's contract.

With the last election, the political landscape changed and Sanchez no longer has the support of the majority on the school board. Unless that's fixed, he has to go (see last week's column). Period. End of story. It happens. The drama needn't further the dystopia (I'm running out of dis-es).

Sanchez serves at the Board's pleasure. A new Board majority is no longer pleased with him. It's that simple.

A man on the go (literally)

In fact, it's just that easy. When I talked to Sanchez last week, he sounded like he he knew the score and had done all he could do to win over the Board.

He even bragged about how he'd lasted longer than any TUSD superintendent since Stan Paz in the early 2000s. He had Roger Pfeuffer's stay memorized down to the number of months. A guy who memorizes that and is happy he beat the record is a guy who is practicing for his next job interview.

The cost to pay out his contract could run as high as $500,000 but it can be spread over two fiscal years. The price of screwing Sanchez over after a history of stop-and-start superintendents is going to make finding a replacement harder.

Think of it this way: Say TUSD decides to do a national search to bring in a true superstar. Now they have to explain how they hired attorneys to crawl up inside the bowels of the last superintendent to find defensible reason to renege on his contract. All those peeved at how much Sanchez makes should consider the “whack-a-doodle” premium they'll have to pay the next guy.

Of course Sanchez is going to demand his contract be honored. The Board should do it if for no other reason to prove to the next supe their word is good.

They want him gone

Board member Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks have been looking for ways to win and that could be a problem. They have been gunning for Sanchez to the point where they were all but subpoenaing reporters at the Arizona Daily Star to look for cause.

Stegeman and Hicks didn't have the votes until dark-horse candidate Rachael Sedgwick won her seat. Now, they seem eager to vindicate that sniping and get rid of him for cause, pay him nothing and answer to no one over it. Boardmembers Adelita Grijalva and Kristel Foster would keep Sanchez, but in the "count to three" world of a five-member elected body, their votes only count for so much.

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If there were a smoking gun, the Board would be standing over Sanchez's termination letter holding smoking barrels. I think we can conclude they don't. Board members today can snoop around all they want looking for reasons to fire him “with cause” to void the rest of his contract, but they'd have already called the vote if they had enough to work with to do so.

With a questionable cause, we'd end up with a court case. That means depositions. That means motions and counter-motions. That means preparation for trial and maybe even a trial itself. That means billable hours up the wazoo and straight into the bank accounts of those outside law firms, Gust Rosenfeld and Rusing, Lopez & Lizardi.

There's no winning. There's just an ending.

The new Board can't pretend the last Board wasn't real or that Sanchez's contract was illegitimate. The cost of the political decision is equal to Sanchez's contract during the next 17 months. Sounds fair.

So what's the problem?

If they are just negotiating a deal with Sanchez, then they are really looking for a win that's way out at the margins when the district's reputation is taking body blows.

The latest drama is taking a toll on public trust because the Sanchez drama is concealed under the personnel and legal exceptions to state transparency laws, which allow officials to discuss matters in executive sessions behind closed doors.

So the lawyers can pile up hours and the public will only know it's resolved when the Board votes to send Sanchez packing.

Meanwhile, we have a lame-duck superintendent overseeing a district with a $7.5 million weekly burn rate. We have lawyers fostering an adversarial relationship between the Board and the superintendent. We have an exasperated public wondering what the hell is going on. The district is stuck in neutral. The Board has already cost the district $500,000 in negative publicity. A protracted legal battle will only add zeros to lawyers' bank accounts and 360-degree damage to the district.

Employing a superintendent of schools ought to be a binary thing. The supe is there or the supe is not.

It's time for the TUSD Governing Board to fire H.T. Sanchez or make amends with their superintendent and a half-million dollars is a cheap price to pay. That's what the lawyers won't tell you.

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.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Stegeman and Sedgwick at the TUSD Governing Board meeting Tuesday night.

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