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Stegeman's time at TUSD more geared to small fights than big ideas

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What the Devil won't tell you

Stegeman's time at TUSD more geared to small fights than big ideas

  • TUSD board member Mark Stegeman's retirement could have punctuated a bigger legacy than complaints and nitpicking.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comTUSD board member Mark Stegeman's retirement could have punctuated a bigger legacy than complaints and nitpicking.

Mark Stegeman is bailing on the TUSD Governing Board for reasons that would seem to make sense only to him. 

It's not like he needs a reason to retire. For my money, the old faithful "I want to spend more time with my family" would suffice. People need to stop eye-rolling family as a reason to leave public office. Part-time elected service is a full-time job and full-time representation can swallow 80 hours a week. And being on the board of the Tucson Unified School District doesn't pay a single dime. Being there as your kids grow up is a perfectly good reason. Let Harry Chapin tell you about cats and cradles. Or Axl Rose, for that matter. 

On the other hand, when voters elect someone to a term of office, they have a right to expect the candidate to fill that tenure. And Stegeman's rationale for leaving is confusing, but then he literally has made limiting information his life's work.

The sailing over at 1010 E. 10th Street has been smooth of late, which is rare. True, Stegeman has been stuffed in steerage on those calm seas. When Michael Hicks left the board last year, Stegeman and Rachael Sedgwick lost their deciding vote to control the board. So he's now one-half of a two-person voting bloc, with the balance of the board not liking him very much.

"I made the decision more or less months ago" about resigning, Stegeman said. "I realized that I'm not the best spokesperson for the district."

This quote prompted his TUSD colleague Adelita Grijalva to offer this observation: “"I appreciate the fact that he realizes that he is not the best spokesperson for the district."

Oohhhhhh! Weapons-grade shade! What's that, Adelita? Are you just glad Stegeman knows he sucks? That’s brilliant of him.

See, Stegeman has always been one of those riddle-wrapped enigmas. He's a respected academic who decided to take his expertise in economics to work on behalf of local schools rather than running for the "glory" of Congress where the pay is infinitely better and the spoils are sweeter. He deserves credit for that. On the other hand, Stegeman always seemed like a guy whose lust to lead was undermined by his need to nitpick.

In his resignation, we see the confounding nature of his tenure.

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

But then he says: 

"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."

He then praises Trujillo.

"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.

So wait. There’s no way to change and reform the district. Yet the district now in the hands of an administrator who has made good changes and has an instinct for reform. And the board’s atmosphere is more positive. So how is it that he sees no way forward? 

His assessment and his rationale seem contradictory. Stegeman's time on the board will be defined more by his capacity to piss people off than rallying people to pursue a vision. He seemed to like being in charge but to what end was anyone's guess. Skirmishes seemed more his speed. It was all grassfire conflicts that have defined the district on issues like school closures, audits, sex ed, ethnic studies and turning superintendents into human skeet. Vision has been absent.

Who's game?

He’s a University of Arizona economics professor specializing in game theory, which tries to predict the chaos so that leaders can make better decisions. 

Stegeman’s insight into game theory posits that leaders can gain an advantage if they limit the information available to their subordinates to keep them on edge. It would leave the leader with the only one who sees how all the parts fit together. Take this from here to there. You don’t know where it’s come from and you don’t know where it’s going, so you better do it faster because God only knows what’s at stake.

That’s great for accounts receivable. It doesn’t work as well in realizing a political vision. And politics, for all that people trash it, is just the art of achieving an outcome in a complex human system.

Voters don’t need to know a lot about their candidates but the political leader is helped greatly when they voters know what that leader stands for, where he wants to take the institution and how the route that needs traveling.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but you know what he stands for and what he wants to do. You get that sense from Raul Grijalva and Regina Romero and hell, even Steve Farley. A state representative like Mark Finchem is – for my money – a pseudoconstitutionalist crank. But I know that’s what he stands for, so I sort of respect it.

Politics is not a field one gets into or excels at if they aren’t operating on an elite intellectual level. On the other hand, how much brain energy is reasonably required to create chaos? And where is the vision Stegeman laments not being able to pursue? 

The fight grows to the fit the frame

Stegeman isn’t a guy bereft of good ideas. He’s just proven far better at pissing people off than building and leading a team. That just pisses people off more, because they think he could lead to something if he would just stop scheming.

The opportunity was there and game theory could have been a good skill to have. Broken down to its basics, he studies information and energy in time and space. 

Well, with TUSD, information transforms into energy in real time and in one’s face.

Every firecracker becomes a mushroom cloud. School-board politics are typically a level above the brutality of rez politics and just a notch below homeowners associations, where guns are for wimps and knives prove who’s who and what’s what.

When kids are involved, the fight always grows to fit the frame. It’s going to get as big as it can. So why make it about audits and superintendents? Make it about that big deeds and good work.

Might as well ride the shock wave if every controversy goes nuclear.

Slippery when explaining

Stegeman had a propensity of making little things big by controlling information to keep people off balance. He did it right up to the end.

Stegeman had plenty to quibble about in the Sentinel's breaking news report on him stepping down. That didn't go over; we're not going to change the news because somebody doesn't like what somebody else said about them. Publicists get paid to make people happy, not journalists. Then he spent a chunk of the evening commenting about the comments in our story.

During a 2011 exchange up in Phoenix on the PBS show “Arizona Horizons,” Stegeman was asked about a decision by state Superintendent John Huppenthal that TUSD’s Ethnic Studies program violated a dumb-ass state law that forbade teaching a course that emphasized historical discrimination.

Horizon: The superintendent says this program violates state law. What say you?

Stegeman: The Governing Board has repeatedly taken the position that we are not in violation of state law and I’m not inclined to say anything to undercut that position.

We were off to the races with 11 minutes of classic Stegeman. He was on all sides of all issues. Perhaps he was trying to show he was sensitive to the intricacies. Yet if I supported Mexican American Studies, I would have felt sold out. If I opposed the program, I would have been left wondering why he supports it if my fears are grounded. He would later vote to cut the program, while standing up for diversity.

Some people can try to explain both sides of an issue in a way that seems relatable to all concerned. Some can't.

There was the 2016 guest editorial he wrote for the Arizona Daily Star that argued for a change in the Governing Board upon which he sat.

It’s not that he trashed his colleagues that caught my eye. It’s that he kept referring to TUSD as if it were something that was separate from himself. It’s that thing over there, I otherwise have nothing to do with except that I’m one of the five people charged with overseeing it.

He mentioned in vague and brief terms his 100-day plan but it as very much beside the point. Perhaps he was just denying the reader information he chose to keep to himself for a later date.

His points weren’t bad. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I like contrarians on elected boards. Stegeman could have been more, is the thing.

Managing a vision thing

George H.W. Bush referred to the pursuit of big ideas as “the vision thing.” I’m left perfectly understanding what Stegeman’s vision was not. I know he opposed how TUSD had become a self-sustaining perpetual motion machine that resisted change when change is paramount. Hallelujah. Someone needs to fight against that.

Education at the brink of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence needs to cut itself free from Industrial Age roots. There’s opportunity to start the chain reaction. But Stegeman was more amenable to audits than audacity.

I’m not sure Stegeman intended his 11-year tenure on the board to disprove his own theories about leadership. He seemed to reinforce the importance of its opposite. Letting people know what you are fighting for, as if it’s branded across your forehead, is preferable in politics to giving people just enough of an idea to piss them off.

Maybe it’s the difference between leadership and management. Managers set fires under people to get them moving. Leaders compel people to follow them through fire to reach a destination. That requires people knowing where they are going and why.

Stegeman's time at TUSD unfolded somewhat in the style of an Elizabethan tragedy (a reference he's not unfamiliar with): despite the struggles of the protagonists, the ending cannot be avoided, according to the internal logic of the play. The waning of the conflicts he's prompted, after years of drama, will be a relief to the district as it tacks in the direction of normalcy.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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