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What the Devil won't tell you

Sedgwick's surprise win may be exactly what TUSD needs

Bickering board couldn't ask for more than a curious, empathetic, tough new member

Boy, did TUSD voters get lucky.

In general, it's a bad idea for the electorate to hire a none-of-the-above candidate who admits they don't know much about the office they seek.

Yet after a 90-minute conversation with Rachel Sedgwick, Tucson Unified School District's unlikely incoming Governing Board member, voters may have gotten it right.

The school board is the very definition of low-information office come election season. The 2016 campaign flew so far under the radar it might as well have been the Piccadilly Circus tube stop on the Bakerloo Line.

The election results were once-in-a-lifetime.

I've seen a lot of comings and goings in local politics in 25 years (it's been that long? Kill me). I've seen the upstart Jimmy-Stewart-style candidate run for office 'cuz, dagammit, they want to make a change. Their intentions are often pure, even if their knowledge of the job they seek is ... let's just call it limited. They rarely win. I've seen 3-2 splits majorities on bodies get tossed on their asses, when voters decide they want change.

I've never seen the two converge, where the voters decide they want change and hand the election to the civic-minded neophyte (and before you go there, I said "civic-minded").

Overnight, the stars aligned to change Sedgwick from a political asterisk into the most powerful newly elected leader between Oro Valley and Nogales. Good thing the woman may match the moment.

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Our conversation was in advance of my radio appearance on Talk of the Town, with Shaun McClusky. I figured it was best to talk to her before talking about her. I'm not easily gulled but came away impressed. What I didn't do is record or take detailed notes. Still, I want to relay why I'm optimistic based on what I learned.

Sedgwick's a whip-smart Ivy League grad and third-year law student. The former means she is used to being the smartest kid in the room. The latter cured her of that notion. So she knows what she doesn't know, although she spent 12 years as a teacher and administrator working on the front lines of education. Still, she approaches her new post humbled, curious and empathetic. Throw in an unmistakable "I'm not-here-to-screw-around" edge to her voice and she has the makings of a powerhouse.

A job that sucks basalt

She'll need to bring all the A game she has to the school board. Then she'll have to scavenge for more.

Governing the schools is a job that, by and large, sucks igneous rocks. It sucks metamorphic and sedimentary, too. It's got all the special interest B.S. of higher office and all the petty animus of homeowner's associations. Fires start every day and there are always reasons they can't be put out. County boards of supervisors face divisions over political philosophy. School boards are marked by blood feuds.

At least the job pays nothing. Oh, and you are trying to be reasonable when parents are only talking about their children (like they care about them) so prepare to be constantly hated.

I don't get the sense any of the TUSD board members want to undermine public education. They all want the same thing but have different ideas about how to get there. Unfortunately, that can be when the fur flies the most.

As a guy who thinks voters must bring unyielding pressure on state leaders to lift Arizona out of 49th place in K-12 funding, I gotta recognize that pressure won't come if voters distrust their school district.

TUSD has showed the public its bickering, personality-driven side enough to have a real public image problem. Adelita Grijalva, Kristel Foster and Cam Juarez had for years been at the throats of Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks. Team Stegeman campaigned to take control of the board and got skunked. Team Grijalva got worked over too. Voters 86ed Juarez, and axed the majority by hiring Sedgwick.

A best-case scenario

Sedgwick represents the best either side could have hoped for in defeat. That means, you, Adelita. Your side just got removed from power. The good news is that your new colleague prefers to be the swing vote, rather than joining the other side to vote in a bloc. I suggest you don't force her in that direction. Mark, your slate of candidates went O-fer, so your takeover was foiled. The good news is that your time in the wilderness is over. Voters have given you someone to work

That means you, Superintendent H.T. Sanchez. You are not on your way out. Sedgewick says she feels for your position and is willing to give you a chance to prove your worth.

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Teachers, she feels ya, and says you are too often "set up to fail" — a point she made time and time again during our conversation.

Voters, Sedgwick feels like she has a humble mandate. In one of the most self-aware quotes a pol ever spoke into my ear, she said "Look, there's no way I should have won." She meant voters were frustrated to the point where they blew off the obvious candidates and settled on the wildcard.

Kids, you got a school board member who points out the oft-forgotten obvious. The school district isn't about budgets, audits, factions, unions, ideologies or turf. It's about you. It's something Sedgwick says with a frustrated sense of the obvious.

Reasons to hope

What may be most refreshing though, in talking to a TUSD board member, is she's without the need of vanquishing or vindication. She's not trying to explain why her side has always been right and the other side has always been wrong. My kingdom for an outburst from the dais that goes: "I don't care who started it. I'm stopping it!"

Look, she ran for office because she wasn't happy with the direction of the board, so there's a natural inclination to side with Stegeman and Hicks. Yet voting in a bloc doesn't seem to be her goal.

After our far-ranging discussion, I don't know if Sedgwick is a Republican or a Democrat. If you told me she was a Tea Party conservative, I'd believe you as fast as if she told me she were an Occupy Liberal. I'd buy that she fancies herself a down-the-line moderate.

On budgets and administration, she she seems right in line with the business community and the more conservative elements of the board. Shes big on accountability, transparency and more accountability.

On teachers, students and public schools as a whole, her words fit better with liberal progressive ideology.

What she lacks in specific knowledge of the district, she seems to make up for in a holistic intellectual grasp of what K-12 means to students and the community. It's "a fundamental human right" that will decide our collective future.

In concrete terms it means she's not eager to fire the somewhat-embattled Sanchez. In fact, she talked at some length about how she feels for the guy coming into a system that has busted up a series of superintendents. I don't get the sense that she'd be squeamish about pulling the trigger. In the mean time, she wants Sanchez "to know he has a boss" and is cool with that title. Meanwhile, "Job One" is to make sure that desegregation funds are well-spent in accordance with a federal court order.

She left education out of frustration in 2014 to study law at the University of Arizona but those studies drove her back into education as academic and real-world experienced convinced her "the schools are too important to give up on."

Her victory shocked her and now she makes no bones about how she knows most what she doesn't know.

"Vote Sedgwick: She must learn more!" makes for a crappy lawn sign. It's also the most honest thing a candidate for office can say.

Opportunity and onus

Swing votes sail turbulent seas. Sedgwick is a novice and a human being. Our psyches aren't made of Kevlar. As soon as one side jumps her, the companionship of the other side will look plenty alluring. Sailors know the first thing to come down in a gale is the sails. She'll have to keep hers up to remain as relevant as she wants to be.

Sedgwick will have to brave the personal the crapstorm coming her way so she can hammer out the kinds of compromises that always make the world go round. Everyone involved with TUSD will try, under the auspices of friendship, to tame her with information overload. Here come the TUSD Kids First crowd to beat on Foster and Grijalva. Right behind them are Protect Our Schools team explaining with charts why Stegeman and Hicks are the enemy.

To thrive, she'll have to reach out to all sides — no matter how petty or patronizing — to get a true God's-eye view of the district.

Could she be a disaster in the making? Sure. She could implode by giving into the darker instincts guiding politicians and take the rest of the board with her. Worse: She could make me look silly for being optimistic, and I do hate that.

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There's a chance, though, that she could pull it off. She could stabilize TUSD and get it on the right path by pulling from both sides of the divide. She's got a chance if she approaches her gig understanding one person can make a huge difference if they don't care who gets credit. It's the opportunity and onus that the heavens have conspired to grant her.

Time will tell if Sedgwick has the rare leadership chops required to grab with both hands the live wires that await deciders such as herself. A star may have just been born. Let's hope she's not swallowed by a black hole.

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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have your say   

3 comments on this story

Nov 21, 2016, 1:39 pm
-0 +1

The story was an alright read. But, no matter who is elected to the board, TUSD is hopeless. It is a monster that has grown far out of control. The only hope of fixing things is to break up that district in to a few smaller, more manageable districts.

Nov 20, 2016, 10:06 pm
-0 +1

I hope your enthusiasm is warranted, but would like to correct a few of your assertions. Despite the assertions of the board majority there was no “team Stegeman” and Mark had no “slate of candidates”. Or maybe I am so politically naive about the questionnaire that we ALL (except two who chose not to) filled out for an endorsement by a third party that I didn’t notice that it was for a team Stegeman? As an independent candidate that kind of toxic spin is neither accurate nor helpful. When the Tucson Weekly endorsed Cam, Kristel and Putnam-Hidalgo, did that make a slate? When a third party chooses three individuals it only makes a slate to those who want to make it something it isn’t.

Nov 20, 2016, 7:21 pm
-0 +2

This is a very well written article. Some people like Ms Sedgewick just defy being pigeonholed into one of the all too familiar labels.  As a recovering TUSD retiree I wish her the best of success in this thankless position. I supported one of the candidates for the board and was shocked to see that it was indeed a blood feud. One of the ruling triad that survived the election has blocked other board members on Facebook which is showing the kids a very childish role model.
While I am an eternal optimist I have my doubts too about her accomplishing any real change. In the fifteen years that I worked at TUSD we had five superintendents come and go and I have no idea how many acting superintendents. TUSD is a juggernaut and as such it is a Herculean task to try to change its course. It’s has an institutional memory that resists all attempts to change it and wards off Superintendents and board members like an immune system fighting a virus. The worst aspect is that it is rife with nepotism and cronyism and even the current board president pretended to not be involved when her mother in law was hired and Sanchez lied about not knowing who she was. There is a culture of corruption down at 1010 and the teachers and the kids are the one who suffer for it. When I heard that 301 money was not paid to teachers like it was supposed to be and used to balance TUSD’s budget it really made me angry. And to add insult to injury Sanchez has a higher salary than the president of the United Sates.
To Ms. Sedgewick I plead, Please hold these people accountable.

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