Stegeman: Why I resigned from TUSD
Former Tucson Unified School District Governing Board member Mark Stegeman released this open letter about his resignation:
Dear supporters and correspondents,
As you may know, I resigned on October 3 from the TUSD board, following the October 2 meeting at which the board completed one of my major goals: it unanimously approved the final piece of a set of policy reforms concerning the district’s notorious blacklist. I had expected to send a much shorter version of this letter on October 3, but it became clear that I should say more. Many of you have been long-time supporters and deserve a more detailed account of my decision and its context, especially since my constituent letters have become less frequent. I appreciate your help over many years and hope that what we have collectively achieved has justified your support.
The constituent letters have been important because the media’s erratic coverage of educational issues leaves huge gaps. Most media, like most teachers, work hard in a challenging environment and for minimal compensation, but they could better inform the public by focusing more on the board’s important decisions and less on its personalities and distracting sideshows (e.g. the board’s recent vote to attach TUSD’s name to a national class-action lawsuit against Juul).
I have intended to send more letters, but one of the many tradeoffs attached to board service is that between conducting the board’s business and talking about it. As my departure date has drawn closer, I have focused my limited TUSD time on board business, at the expense of communicating.
I intend to wrap up my board service with two letters after this one. The first will summarize what the board and TUSD have done this year, through my departure date, beyond what I have already reported to you. The final letter will discuss TUSD’s structural problems and the obstacles to their solution.
Closure or progress on three issues
The timing of my resignation was based on progress on three significant initiatives, for which my presence was probably decisive.
Policies addressing the practice of “blacklisting.”
TUSD’s long-rumored practice of blacklisting, which I had inquired about for years before Superintendent Trujillo finally investigated it and disclosed his findings, has finally been addressed in policy. For almost a year I have been working with TUSD’s General Counsel and, more recently, with Leila Counts to craft policy changes that would prevent those opaque and unfair practices from returning. The reforms are embodied in three new or revised policies, through which we tried to balance fairly the interests of the district, its employees, and its students. All three have now passed the board unanimously, the last one on October 2. I was committed to remaining on the board until we had adopted the entire policy package.
The centerpiece is the new policy GBQ, which describes how a former employee can be placed on the donot- rehire list. If the employee agrees to this in a separation agreement, then he or she must initial that specific provision after receiving a copy of GBQ, to ensure that they understand their appeal rights. Alternatively, if the employee has been dismissed for certain listed infractions, then Human Resources must conduct a review of the specific case to determine whether a do-not-rehire designation is appropriate. If so, then HR’s recommendation goes to the superintendent, who makes the final decision. If the superintendent concurs, then he or she must personally sign a letter to the former employee stating that they cannot be rehired. The former employee then has the right to appeal to the superintendent for reconsideration, and if that fails can appeal directly to the board.
For a much shorter list of severe infractions (e.g. sexual infractions, assault, disclosure of a student’s protected information), a dismissal implies automatic placement on the do-not-rehire list.
The second part of the package is a revision of policy GCAA, which concerns the information provided during reference checks. Employment references shall now comprise only dates of employment and positions held, and the contents of any termination letter that required a report to outside authorities. More detailed information, including do-not-rehire status, can be provided only if: the individual has agreed in writing to such release (e.g., through a separation agreement or in response to a potential employer’s request); or if release is required by law (e.g., through a public records request).
The third part of the package is a revision of policy GBJ, concerning records retention. The change adds language requiring the retention of personnel records to the greatest extent allowed by law. The purpose is to ensure that anyone considering the rehire of a former TUSD employee has as much information as possible about that employee’s history.
We consulted with UA’s policy and its Human Resources Department, and with outside counsel at the Udall firm, while drafting these changes. We also sought outside comment on policy drafts, through the board’s policy comment process, and comments posted there affected final drafts of the policies. The whole process consumed eleven months. I am pleased with both the process and the final results.
The blacklist, as it had been practiced, was a vile institution that unfairly harmed many people. I hope that this set of policy changes permanently blocks the return of similar abuses.
Twenty-year extension of UA’s lease to operate Camp Cooper.
On September 15 the board unanimously approved a new inter-governmental agreement with the UA’s Education College, to operate the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning for the next 20 years. (The previous agreement was for five years.) Tens of thousands of students from TUSD and other schools have benefited from Cooper’s programs, for over 50 years. The 20-year term will help UA to raise money for major capital improvements at Cooper.
The unexpectedly difficult part of the process, which took months longer than expected, was getting TUSD to agree to such a long lease. There seemed to be internal resistance, though I was unable to identify the source. In the end, I had to amend the proposed agreement from the dais, just before adoption, to lengthen the term of the lease. (UA’s representatives were obviously happy with the extension.) In 2010 there was a similarly mysterious attempt to add Camp Cooper to a list of properties to be submitted to the voters, for approval to sell. (To sell any property, a school district must first obtain voter approval.) I caught that addition at the board meeting, before the vote, and the board deferred action until staff could review the list of properties and remove Camp Cooper.
Perhaps some outside interest, which hopes eventually to acquire Camp Cooper, lies behind these unexplained events, but that is speculation. In any case, Camp Cooper’s future is now secure for at least 20 years. With luck major upgrades are coming.
Recruitment of an internal auditor, with increased compensation
On June 25 the board voted 3-2 (Foster and Grijalva dissenting) to approve a revised job description for the vacant internal auditor position, at higher compensation based on the audit committee’s analysis of the market. The board-approved job description strangely remained unposted for many weeks, but it eventually produced an improved applicant pool. The audit committee has been reviewing that pool and should soon make a recommendation to the board.
The ten-year-old MGT management audit of TUSD concluded that a competent internal auditor should generate savings that exceed the cost of the position. I still agree with that.
The completion of the policy changes and the Camp Cooper lease, and enough progress on the internal auditor to convince me that completion is likely, left me comfortable resigning after the October 2 meeting. This timing was designed to minimize discussion, distraction, and drama. It also presumably means that the board will be short-handed for only the October 16 meeting. Nothing at that meeting foundered on a 2-2 vote.
The Pima County Superintendent of Schools, who is responsible for filling the vacancy, has known for months that this decision was coming. I did not want surprise him with this otherwise unanticipated task. He has 15 applicants and I expect an announcement very soon. I have made no recommendation and have no inside information about his choice.
Goals and progress during 10+ years on the board.
When I moved from TUSD’s audit committee to the board, almost eleven years ago, I believed that TUSD had the underlying assets necessary to be an excellent school district. Indeed, I believed, and still believe, that it could be the best school district in greater Tucson. Increasing TUSD’s capture ratio (the fraction of students living in TUSD who attend TUSD schools) from 60% to merely 75% would bring over 11,000 students back into the district. This would be attainable if TUSD were willing to make the hard and necessary changes.
The success of TUSD and other traditional districts is important for at least three reasons:
(1) Regardless of how many charter schools enter TUSD, many students will choose the default option of the local traditional district, and they deserve a good education. Indeed, to the extent that many of these students come from less-educated or less-prosperous families, their need for strong schools is especially important.
(2) Education is (I think) still the best single instrument that we have, as a society, to facilitate social mobility and advancement out of poverty.
(3) The best way to achieve integration, by almost any measure (income, ethnicity, religion, family background, etc.) is a traditional district that is strong enough to attract most of the students who live within its boundaries. Integration is important because being immersed among many kinds of people, at a young age, is important for understanding persons unlike oneself and learning how to get along with them.
A stronger TUSD would also have a huge positive effect on Tucson’s economy.
During my tenure TUSD has indeed improved in many ways. In some cases I have initiated change; in others I have been happy to support others’ positive initiatives.
Here I list forty changes that I have successfully promoted, most of which (I believe) were otherwise unlikely to happen. Some were relatively easy, while others required years of persistent effort. Some have had or will have a substantial impact, while others are merely cracks in TUSD’s institutional caliche. (Some of those small cracks were, ironically, the hardest to achieve).
Most of these changes happened either during my early years on the board, or recently after Rachael Sedgwick joined the board and became a strong voice for reform. I record them partly in the hope that creating this record will reduce the chance of backsliding.
Simpler annual goals for the superintendent
* TUSD’s recent annual goals have focused on five core metrics, including enrollment. The board should set such broad goals, but I opposed and continue to oppose a board-directed strategic planning process that asks a citizen committee to write a detailed multi-year action plan. Development of such a strategic plan should be and is in most organizations a staff-directed process, informed where appropriate by community input.
Reallocation of millions of dollars toward the core mission of K-12 teaching.
* TUSD is finally spending more than half of its budget on instruction, after the board finally (in 2017) agreed to set a formal target above 50%. (Its instructional spending share is still far below that of other large Arizona districts.)
* TUSD has finally reduced its administrative spending below 10% of its budget, after the board finally agreed to set that target. (Its administrative spending share is still significantly above that of other large Arizona districts.)
* In 2017 the board stipulated (3-2, Foster and Grijalva opposed) that TUSD’s two stand-alone preschools stop draining funds from the educational program at the regular schools, and the operating losses have declined. Whether the preschools are actually breaking even is unclear, as my request for recent operating statements remains unanswered.
* TUSD made small progress in this year’s budget toward getting more counselors and librarians back into schools.
* Major policy changes (GCAB) place a new priority on subject area expertise, in senior administrative appointments. Administrative interview panels for positions requiring specialized knowledge should now contain a majority of subject-area experts, including experts from outside TUSD where necessary. These experts also play a role in the development of interview questions. Another major change is that candidate-specific questions, and followup questions, are now allowed in interviews. TUSD’s General Counsel and I developed these changes with assistance from external counsel. The changes also strengthen the conflict of interest rules that apply to interview panels. The board adopted the changes by a 3-2 vote, with Foster and Grijalva opposed.
* Another revision to GCAB requires that administrators hired through outside employment agencies (e.g. ESI) be subject to the same board review and approval processes as regular employees. * Another policy change affects the interviews for site administrators: it gives the site council the right to appoint 2/3 of the members of the initial interview committee. This partially reverses years of erosion in the role of site councils. For the hiring of assistant principals, the school principal has the right to one discretionary appointment on the search committee.
* The board recently reversed the Sanchez-era decision to outsource substitute teacher services. It also increased substitutes’ compensation significantly.
* We have reformed TUSD’s policies concerning the blacklist and employment references, as discussed earlier in this letter.
* TUSD’s last superintendent search process included modest improvements from previous processes. It was slightly more thorough, and the board announced the appointment only after a successful salary negotiation.
* Modest positive reforms to the long (60+ pages) teachers’ contract include a slightly reduced role for seniority, in personnel decisions.
* We have introduced, though at only one school, a small permanent annual stipend, for teachers certified and teaching in exceptional education. This stipend comes from desegregation funds and is an important precedent for what kind of desegregation spending will be legal following the eventual release from court oversight.
* After an extraordinary amount of controversy and an inappropriate promotion, reflecting the strength of the Friends and Family culture, and finally two resignations, the board office has attained a higher level of professionalism.
* Four years ago the board adopted policy that encourages merit-based two-year contracts for principals, as allowed by statute. Including this change on this list is questionable, however, because no such contracts have yet been issued. The then-superintendent undermined the policy by adopting a regulation that fined a principal $10,000 if they accepted a two-year contract and then left after one year. It is unsurprising that no principal has accepted that risk.
Budget transparency and auditing
* After years of effort, TUSD finally hired an internal auditor and adopted policies governing the internal audit function.
* The district made a long-overdue change in its external auditors, after the previous auditors had served longer than best practice allows and had experienced performance scandals in other jurisdictions. * The audit committee has been restored to strength. The board has given the committee a major charge to make recommendations concerning how financial data are reported to the board. That charge was approved by a 3-2 vote, with Foster and Grijalva dissenting.
* The board established an anonymous process for submitting complaints to the audit committee. * The board has more budget study sessions; the budget book has become somewhat more informative and is released earlier in the year.
General transparency and compliance with the Open Meeting Law. * Since early 2012, board meetings have been video-streamed.
* The discussion of the board’s goals for the superintendent, which are in effect an important policy statement, have been forced out of Executive Session and into public discussion. (This required a complaint by me to the state Attorney General’s office, which was sustained and led to mandatory training for the board.)
* The practice of approving documents that do not yet exist at the time of approval has largely ended. (My complaint about this, to the Attorney General’s office, was to my surprise not sustained; but the practice changed anyway.) Similarly, the language of motions has been generally tightened, to clarify whatever action the board is taking.
* A written record of the board’s actions is now posted within three days of a board meeting; and formal minutes are prepared and approved reasonably promptly.
* The unusual TUSD institution of a board agenda committee was abolished, after the district counsel agreed with my concerns about it.
* In 2009 the board created a volunteer Technology Oversight Committee, at a time when TUSD’s IT challenges were much greater than now. The TOC proved its worth, or potential worth, when it sought to review a troubled procurement for TUSD’s wide-area network. The governing board blocked the review by a 3-2 vote, perhaps concerned about the potential findings. After board approval, the procurement was held up for months by an Attorney General investigation, and several years later the partly-completed network was completely ripped out and reprocured.
* The compliance of board-appointed entities with the Open Meeting Law has improved greatly, though issues (e.g. the recent Family Life Committee) still arise.
* A policy change requires access to school immunization rates through the district website (though it is hard to find).
Protecting site-level authority
* Principals have regained considerable discretion in the allocation of Title I funds generated by their schools.
* Teachers have regained authority to decide which students pass courses, subject only to direct appeal to the governing board. After the legislature removed this provision from statute, the board incorporated the former statutory language into district policy.
School closures and leases
* The board’s original hostility toward allowing competitors to use its closed school sites has relaxed slightly, as it has leased several sites to small charter or private schools.
* The board, during the last round of school closures, adopted my proposed criteria for deciding which schools to close. These criteria emphasize a realistic calculation of the expected financial savings from a closure.
* We have ensured Camp Cooper’s future through a new long-term lease to UA, as discussed earlier in the letter.
Statutory and policy compliance generally
* The longstanding practices of new hires starting work before the board had approved their appointments, teaching courses before the board had approved the curriculum, or buying teacher materials before the board had approved their use, all of which violated both statute and policy, have been substantially curtailed.
* Modest changes to the Student Conduct Code (the “GSRR”) include explicit mention of teachers’ statutory rights to remove disruptive students from the classroom (though in my opinion does not fully implement those rights). In general, the options for imposing consequences for infractions have increased slightly.
* A major policy change requires more physical activity (e.g. structured recess activity) for elementary students.
* University High School now welcomes out-of-district students, and these comprise a substantial share of its current enrollment;
* A policy change has in principle reduced excessive standardized (benchmark) testing, though the actual impact of this change is unclear.
* During my 2018 board presidency, the board held its first retreat in years.
* TUSD’s self-insurance health plan (discussed below).
Though there could be debate on a couple of points, I believe that none of this would have happened if I had not been on the board.
Other “successes” have come in the form of derailing various bad ideas, but there is less point to listing those.
TUSD’s self-insurance health plan
Perhaps the single most important change was replacing TUSD’s unpopular traditional health insurance by a self-insurance plan, in 2011. I have served almost continuously on the Health Trust Board that oversees the plan, and the range and depth of expertise on the HTB exceeds what is typical for such boards. (I have not resigned from the HTB.) Unlike TUSD as a whole, which generally underperforms its peers on financial and efficiency measures, TUSD’s health plan has significantly outperformed similar plans. Premium increases have been well below average and below the rate of inflation in health costs, the administrative expense ratio is far below that of peer plans, and many benefits have expanded, including wellness programs. The Health Trust has cash reserves of about $24 million, and employee complaints related to health insurance have dropped greatly.
As TUSD drifts into an increasingly difficult financial situation, with declining enrollment, a declining credit rating (now Moody’s A1, which is still good), and a new line of credit with the state, I am concerned about the temptation to raid the Health Trust reserves. The HTB already subsidizes TUSD by millions of dollars per year, in the form of an annual premium “rebate,” financed by the health plan’s “profit.” This subsidy was increased last year after repeated requests from TUSD administration, but the Trust’s reserves are a bulwark against rising health care costs and should be held mainly to mitigate future premium increases or erosion of benefits. (In recent months, the Trust has finally begun to experience negative cash flow, as claims costs rise.) The large reserves also reduce costs by minimizing the need for stop-loss insurance.
Appointing a range of subject area experts to the Trust Board, without regard for their political affiliations, has been a key to the plan’s success. I am concerned, thereore, about the Governing Board’s last appointment to the Trust Board, which passed 4-1 (I was opposed). The appointee was not reviewed by the HTB and does not by any reasonable interpretation satisfy the professional qualifications for the Trust Board, as required by the Trust Agreement. (After showing up for his first meeting of the HTB, the new member has never attended another.)
That appointment, and two recent appointments to the audit committee, have reinforced my concern that TUSD’s institutional tendency to fill positions based on who you are or whom you know rather than on what you know (The “Friends and Family” culture) is spreading to areas that were formerly insulated from it.
Unfortunately, the list of reforms that I attempted unsuccessfully is longer than the list of successes, and it includes reforms more substantial than most of the successes listed above.
I feel considerable self-reproach: for changes that were needed and successful but became unnecessarily controversial; for changes that might have succeeded if execution and public outreach had been better; for changes that were probably unrealistic from the start and thus wasted time and effort; for changes that might have been feasible but were not attempted or were attempted at the wrong time.
For the 2016 election I promoted a 100-day plan, comprising 10 reforms that I believed could be initiated quickly. The list omitted some major items such as raising educational standards, especially in TUSD’s weakest areas (e.g. science), which present longer and more complicated challenges. Yet three years later only about 40% of that list has been achieved. Rachael Sedgwick, who won a seat, had an agenda mostly aligned with mine and good ideas of her own, but the essential third vote was often missing.
Instead, the 2017-18 board rejected major reforms and vacillated on many issues, to the extent of repeatedly casting a 3-2 vote one way and then reversing direction through another 3-2 vote weeks or month later. This pattern wasted enormous time, resources, and political capital. The 20 months between the departure of Superintendent Sanchez and the 2018 board election thus represented a lost opportunity to change TUSD’s direction. As enrollment continues to decline, it is unclear when another such opportunity will emerge. This still weighs heavily.
Futile “No” votes
Another part of my record on the board is unsuccessful opposition to many board actions. Many such votes reflected substantive differences in viewpoint, but in others the board’s action made no sense and was costly in time or money or both. Here are some examples:
* The 2017 special bond election that cost a million dollars to administer and was crushed with a 59% No vote;
* A superintendent’s contract that awarded over $450,000 in compensation for a single year; * A $35,000 consulting contract for a complete rewrite of the student disciplinary code, which delayed more practical reform, was unlikely to move entrenched viewpoints on this issue, and was predictably abandoned after completion;
* A new dual language curriculum that appeared clearly to violate state law and which was unanimously rejected by the State Board of Education, after much time and effort by TUSD. I support the vast majority of superintendents’ recommended appointments, but I have opposed some senior appointments, especially in recent years, because they appeared to be clearly weak choices, based on qualifications, performance history, the immediate needs of the unit they would be supervising, or an inherently flawed process. In many cases my reservations have been confirmed, and the appointee has ultimately resigned or been forced out or demoted.
I opposed the board’s 4-1 decision to join a relatively small number of Arizona districts that switched from AzMERIT to ACT for standardized testing, in the first year that the option was offered. I made what I thought was a persuasive argument for waiting: there was a good chance that the option would disappear and we would be forced back to AzMERIT. Indeed that happened after just one year. Switching tests in consecutive years wasted significant time and effort, and we effectively lost a year of comparable achievement data.
Obviously I am not claiming to be always right. In retrospect, I would change some of my past votes, both Yes and No votes. In several cases I am glad that the board as a whole rejected my position.
Reasons for resignation
The biggest single reason for leaving early is the great difficulty, as I have gradually realized over time, of achieving my vision for TUSD. This has two parts. First, the changes needed are many and deep. Second, it is difficult, for reasons both external and internal, and for reasons common to many school districts and others unique to TUSD, to make changes. I will discuss both parts in a subsequent letter. It may help the cause of reform going forward.
My increased family obligations make the tradeoffs connected to board service much sharper. A radio host asked why I could not simply let my term run out. On October 3 my young children were about 2½ years old, and seven months old. In another fifteen months they will be almost four years and two years old. That is a big difference.
The third reason is that the limited resources that I can invest in this unpaid and almost unstaffed position are unnecessarily diluted by housekeeping issues that should be addressed long before they rise to the board level.
A prominent example was the long-running public controversy concerning the years-long underpayment of Proposition 301 funds. Millions of dollars were unpaid, and months elapsed while we tried to understand the magnitude and origin of the problem. Staff sometimes seemed more focused on denying responsibility than on informing the board and devising solutions; and in the end no ideal solution could be found, because many employees who received inadequate payments had retired and could no longer legally receive disbursements. The recent administrative stumble that caused many substitute teachers to be unexpectedly locked out of their positions for two days consumed most of the oxygen, for a short time. The various failures in curriculum approval processes, over the years, have often spilled into public view and squandered much time and goodwill. Execution errors in Human Resources are chronic. The longstanding shortcomings in Open Meeting Law compliance have placed me (and more recently Rachael Sedgwick) in the position of frequently using the yellow card – or deciding to let the error pass this time. Repairing the problems created by the district’s pointlessly rude and dismissive behavior toward the desegregation plaintiffs, in past years, consumed much time and attention.
I could recount literally hundreds of examples, some major and some trivial (e.g. errors in public presentations, including conspicuous spelling errors). Much of the past ten years has been spent chasing such foul balls, or deciding which are worth chasing. This takes precious time away from what the board should be doing: setting policy, absorbing the important data that arrive concerning achievement and financial performance, working with the superintendent on budget priorities, understanding the basic structure of TUSD’s curriculum, succession planning, etc.
The final reason is the cumulative stress that arises from being ultimately accountable for all that goes wrong and harms staff, students, and families. Arizona statute gives extraordinary authority and responsibility to local school boards, with minimal checks and balances. While the board can, within tight statutory limits, delegate responsibilities to a superintendent, it is ultimately responsible for almost all legislative, executive, and judicial functions. The buck almost always stops at the board.
Every organization makes some mistakes, but being ultimately accountable for everything that goes wrong in TUSD becomes, eventually, morally exhausting. It is a difficult burden in those cases where the board, practically speaking, had little control over the bad outcome; and it is of course even worse when it seems that perhaps I could have done something to prevent or mitigate the problem.
If I could see the realistic path to make TUSD the district that it could be, the district that could compete head-to-head with its strongest competitors and attract 10,000 students back, then all tradeoffs would be manageable. But as strong competitors continue to expand and enrollment continues to decline, the path looks increasingly challenging.
TUSD can continue to improve incrementally, to be a better version of what it is, and that can happen whether or not I am on the board. Though we have disagreed sharply on some issues, the election of Leila Counts has been positive and can help to advance some changes. But incremental improvement falls short of what I think TUSD needs.
Another letter (soon) will discuss what I see as TUSD’s major structural problems and why it is so difficult to solve them.
Again, I appreciate the support that I have received from many of you, over many years. It has not, thanks to you, been a thankless job. I hope that serving 2/3 of my third term sufficiently respects that support. Maybe someday I will make a highlight film, including the protestors at my house and in my classroom, the board members chasing me around the parking lot, the circus-like episodes in the boardroom – but for now I am simply grateful for more sleep at night.
I also look forward to the full recovery of my sense of humor.
Thanks for your interest in TUSD.