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What the Devil won't tell you

Power down: TUSD needs help after Sanchez battle turns ugly

Politics is getting way too personal on district Governing Board, puts schools at risk

The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board right now looks like a particularly bad episode of The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Whatever nobility may have animated intentions at the beginning of the year has devolved into an exhibition in blood, gore and dismemberment.

The people may have to step in.

TUSD's leadership voted Tuesday to accept Superintendent H.T. Sanchez's resignation in lieu of firing him for – or without – cause, to pay him $200,000 and short circuit either a lawsuit or him walking away without shoving his nose in it. The board members then did their best to hide the terms of the agreement from the public — including the terms that required them to try to keep the deal secret. Why break form and start looking functional at the end of the drawn-out mess?

It's personal now and the district's schools and kids are most likely going to be the ones who suffer most.

With the deal already having been signed, Board President Michael Hicks refused to let the public address the board before the 3-2 vote to accept Sanchez's resignation. Boardmember Kristel Foster issued a lengthy invective-soaked statement practically calling Boardmember Mark Stegeman an enemy of the people and Boardmember Rachael Sedgwick a white supremacist. Sedgwick tried to mute Foster in mid-sentence by inventing a parliamentary rule precluding her comments over their “relevance” (she was informed there is no rule because a Board meeting is not a court room).

Read more: $200K payout as Sanchez resigns from TUSD

The moment was best exemplified when Hicks defended the board's tendency to burn through superintendents by asking, “How many city managers have we gone through? That is indignant of this community.”

Mr. President, the word you were looking for was "indicative" but boy did your Freudian slip nail it.

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Sanchez walks away the clear winner. Not only does he get to leave with a check in his hand but none of this is his problem anymore. He got less money than he could've under his contract, but he ended up with an agreement that bars his critics on the Board from talking about him.

If I've seen this once, I've seen it a lot. The politics governing TUSD now require not just one side to win but that the victory demands the other side lose wholesale. National politics may be divisive but the closer politics get to our front door, they more they get personal.

When you believe your agenda is the one agenda that serves the students, then you translate opposition to your agenda into an attack on the kids – and you're not going to stand for that.

It's time to review the bidding. H.T. Sanchez wasn't a bad superintendent. He might have even been a good superintendent. He was the wrong superintendent for the current composition of the board. Parting ways with him needn't have been any more complicated than that.

The TUSD Governing Board isn't a bad board. The Board's composition is actually pretty good. Sure they're at odds. They represent a cross-section of the community. That's a plus. Sure it's contentious. People disagree. That's democracy. However, this Board has been at war for so long the schools have become secondary to the battle.

So for the good of the students, teachers and my sanity, the board members and their accompanying factions must start to look outside themselves to the broader community. TUSD is not the Board, the superintendent, the staff, the faculty, the schools or even the students. TUSD is everyone within its borders and what they want for the schools serving the community.

Stegeman's chaos game

The new board's center of gravity seems to still be Mark Stegeman, a guy I have a strange predilection to support. He seems like the kind of mind the district needs.

I was Democratic Party communications director when its executive committee voted to censure Stegeman for failing to support a key union deal as the TUSD budget burned down. I was gone before I could tell former boss and party chairman Jeff Rogers maybe to back off on calling for Stegeman to be tarred, feathered and run out of town” for voting against the Mexican American Studies program. The program was under attack from the state.

Neither were called for and both lead to a permanent split between Stegeman and the local activists.

On the other hand, boy does Stegeman piss people off.

Stegeman is a University of Arizona economist who specializes in “game theory,” and how management may take new approaches to lead. A 2010 paper he co-wrote for the RAND Journal of Economics stated withholding information and keeping workers on edge is the key to motivation.

Methinks he's over-learned his lessons.

Check out this article on the Eller School of Mangement's website, where Stegeman says a little chaos can go a long way in leadership:

“That’s because it’s harder for uninformed workers to know when to shirk,” Stegeman says. “When only one person gets the information and acts, the others observe the action and can either join in, or shirk. The followers don’t know the leader’s information and whether she is acting to pursue a high-payoff or a marginal project. So followers can be ‘tricked’ into joining projects which they would individually prefer to avoid, but they collectively benefit from their ignorance, and they understand that.”

The key, he says, is for the leader to maintain credibility with the followers. In his paper, one kind of credible leader is a “high-cost leader,” who is reluctant to act. When this leader does choose to pursue a project, the followers will conclude that the project has a high expected payoff and be willing to follow the leader.

“We show that superficial notions of what makes a good leader — or a good follower — may not always be correct,” Stegeman says. “In some cases, he who knows less works more, and he who leads least leads best.”

Keep people on edge and they'll do your bidding. Mission accomplished, Mark.

That may be true in the military or business if the universe of potential followers is limited to those within the ranks below the leader. In politics, the universe includes a whole bunch of forces the leader can't coerce. There's a difference between an insurgent disrupting the status quo and a leader who has to account for the whole system.

Here's the other game. On a five-person board expect no permanent friends and make no permanent enemies.

Kristel's blue persuasion

The fastest way to check Stegeman would be for Foster and Boardmember Adelita Grijalva to reach out to new member Sedgwick, who has publicly declared her willingness to work with them.

Foster's rant at the end of the process just accelerated the fire by attacking Stegeman and calling out Sedgwick over dubious claims that she's a hood-wearing, swastika-brandishing champion of subjugating the lesser races.

“You coaxed our pro-charter, racially charged school board member to join you into building an unfounded case against our superintendent,” Foster said.

Look, Kristel, if you believe Sedgwick is an aspiring grand wizard that's one thing — but is it possible she got trolled by a self-satisfied political trickster into an unfortunate moment of snark? Or let's put it like this: If you believe Sedgwick is a self-styled white-supremacist, is her biggest problem that she's voting to remove Sanchez? It seems clear that the anti-Stegeman/Hicks forces in and around TUSD are going to make Sedgwick eat that snark and tar her with racism for the foreseeable future.

So they would rather remain in the minority by forcing Sedgwick into a permanent coalition with the two white guys than try to move her to their side.

It's worth remembering that U2's Bono sat in the office of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, an unreconstructed racist, and got him to sign off on spending money on AIDS victims in Africa. He didn't do it out of Southern sympathies. Helms chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Africa needed his vote. Foster can't do that with Sedgwick or Stegeman over deseg funding?

Her side lost the last election. The new board didn't want Sanchez to run the schools anymore. That's really all it takes.

Relevant lessons

I remember my first day crossing over from journalism to party politics. It was the Spring of 2009 and the job market lay in ruins across the country so I decided to use my connections to volunteer my way into a job. On Easter Sunday, I sat in then-City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff's living room with her campaign team less than a week after Trasoff found herself on the losing side of a 4-3 vote to fire City Manager Mike Hein.

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I swore secrecy that day so I won't go into the details but I can tell you that when I left the meeting I drove home repeating the same three words: “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” punctuated with the occasional “Holy F dash dash dash.”

The Council members were punching at each others' livers because firing the chief executive is as close as local politics comes to an act of war.

The result of that campaign, of course, was the election of Steve Kozachik. The Koz has proven to be an effective member of the Council – and disrupting force – because he has learned now to steer the bureaucracy rather than whack at it. He'll defend the institutions when he thinks they need defending. He'll hold the staff accountable. He'll jump in and pull different groups together.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva knows how to flash his fangs as well as anyone on the national scene but he also has proven himself willing to make deals advancing his cause by getting some of what he wants even if he has to deal with some of what he just must endure.

Both understood vitriolic and permanently narrow majorities aren't the best way to govern.

New players, new game

So how does the TUSD Governing Board get out of this mess. I've seen it work by expanding the number of players to the nth degree.

When I was in Flagstaff, city politics had reached a similar breaking point, when voters crushed an all-things-to-all-people ballot measure because someone that wasn't them would get something out of the compromise.

So the city, county, school district, university, community college, business groups and environmentalists decided to enlist the whole metro Flagstaff area on a year-long public-involvement process that guided the region's decision-making for a good, long time.

Closer to home, Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan brought all activists and interests into a planning process that informed how the Tucson area managed its growth while protecting the environment.

Enlisting stakeholders to "achieve synergies by re-purposing infrastructure in the name of re-visioning" can just be an effective way to manage ineffectiveness. Elected leaders can use them as a crutch, a shield or a scapegoat. Done right, they can provide a framework that guides decision-making based on a set of principled objectives the community has laid out for their leaders to follow so long as all sides understand the trade offs involved.

Tucson schools are about to get a new superintendent and I would strongly suggest a deep dive into just what the people want from their schools as a condition of making the hire.

The TUSD Governing Board is broken. That's the bad news. The good news is that the people it serves are not. The former could use an assist for the other. In the mean time, board members, paranoia requires a dangerous degree of ego. It's not all about you.

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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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1 comment on this story

Mar 3, 2017, 3:23 pm
-0 +1

TUSD needs to be divided up into 3 smaller districts. But I have no idea how the Deseg thing would affect that - probably won’t let it occur.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

TUSD Governing Board members Mike Hicks, Mark Stegeman, Adelita Grijalva and Rachael Sedgwick on Tuesday night.


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