Tucson Unified School District Governing Board president Michael Hicks is calling for cooperation from his fellow Board members and support from the community as the District begins the process of reformation. Hicks is calling on all Board members to put aside hurt feelings, grudges, and personal ambitions and focus on the needs of the District’s tens of thousands of students.
“TUSD is now undergoing a significant transition due to the recent resignation of its Superintendent. In itself, this required a process which was spread over a three week period due to the legal confidentiality requirements and need to ensure clear communication within the process. For the last two weeks, the Board has been involved in a process of selecting an interim superintendent. (Currently the District’s Deputy Superintendent, Dr. Karen Kopec, serves in this role.) These matters have brought about some level of resistance and misinformation- with what I believe to be the intent to slow down or sabotage each process. Such undermining will ultimately fail and acts only as a distraction. It is not productive to the operation of the District, its employees and students who they serve,” said Hicks in a statement on Friday.
Earlier this month, Superintendent H.T. Sanchez was forced to resign or face termination by the Board. After false allegations were published on an obscure online news site that the Board had breached Open Meeting laws this week, it became apparent that not all Board members were interested in a collaborative process, according to District insiders. That site, the Tucson Sentinel, has served as the public relations arm for a local group of political power players.
Some of those political power players are members of the “G-Crew.” That nickname refers to the group’s leader, Congressman Raul Grijalva. The Congressman’s daughter, Adelita, was replaced as president of the TUSD Board by Hicks in January. In the 2016 General Election, former G-Crewmember, Cam Juarez, lost his seat on the Board and was replaced by political newcomer Rachael Sedgwick.
Grijalva’s camp had controlled the Board since the time the Congressman served as a TUSD Board member from 1974 to 1986. Adelita was first elected to the Board in 2002.
Under their leadership, the District has experienced a massive loss of students, and now also suffers, along with other districts in the state, from a teacher shortage. Unlike other districts, little has been done in TUSD to increase the number of highly qualified teachers in classrooms. Instead, the number of administrators has swelled.
Creating chaos and confusion
The Grijalva’s are not easily giving up control however, and have taken drastic steps to hamstring the efforts of Hicks, Sedgwick and fellow Board member, Mark Stegeman, to redirect funds into the classrooms and away from administration.
Grijalva, Stegeman, and fellow Board member, Kristel Foster, are quoted in the nonsensical Sentinel piece, which seems to imply that the appearance of an interim deputy superintendent position and an interim superintendent position on the agenda for the now-cancelled March 17 meeting was illegal.
Arizona statute allows boards to consider personnel and legal issues in executive sessions. Nothing in statute would have prevented the TUSD Board from adding a discussion of a deputy superintendent position to the agenda.
The Sentinel rightly noted that the Board “is legally restricted from discussing or taking action on items that do not appear on public agendas.” However; because the item was on the agenda, it is unclear what the violation, to which the Sentinel alludes, might be. Given the Sentinel’s history of creating scandals out of whole cloth, it would not be surprising that the allusion to a violation was simply and wholly specious.
There is little doubt that the Sentinel’s story was at the behest of, or at least spurred by members of the G-Crew. Click bait like that provided by anything related to TUSD would be hard for even a nonpartisan independent news site, like the ADI, to ignore. Still, the bizarre theory that publically posting a notice of a board action is somehow illegal is really over the top.
Sanchez cohorts fail the system
The Board had little reason to believe that the generously paid Deputy Superintendent Karen Kopec would refuse to assume the leadership role upon Sanchez’s departure. After all, she surely would have been expected to assume those responsibilities had Sanchez left for other reasons such as illness. Because she has essentially refused the role, the Board was left to search for an interim superintendent until they could permanently fill the vacancy created by Sanchez’s departure.
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Kopec’s contract provides for a base salary of $151,000; $17,000 more than her predecessor, Adrian Vega, received. Kopec’s contract grants an $8,000 stipend, a $10,000 performance bonus, and $500 to $600/day for every day of vacation she does not take. The contract includes 25 vacation days, 5 sick days, and 5 personal days and ALL the school holidays.
Kopec was brought into the District by Sanchez and enjoyed a lucrative salary and bonuses despite her limited leadership experience. Kopec had been one of Sanchez’s references when he first applied for the TUSD job in 2013.
Because of Kopec’s very emotional breakdown in front of other administrators after Sanchez was forced out, there has been great community pressure on the Board to force her resignation as well and bring in support for the interim superintendent. In fact, Maggie Shafer, who first said she would accept the interim position and then reportedly dropped out after the Sentinel’s hit piece, insisted that Terri Melendez be hired as the deputy superintendent to provide support to her, according to sources close to Shafer.
Restoring calm, taking charge
“Change and the transitions it brings about are both difficult and I am optimistic that both our internal and external TUSD community understands that as we move forward it is in the best interest of serving its 47,000- plus- students,” said Hicks. “Critical processes such as the development of the 2017-18 budget are now underway and the Board’s attention must not only focus on an immediate search for an interim superintendent, but on the search for TUSD’s permanent superintendent. The fact that a person has declined to be considered for the interim superintendent position is a bump, but it is one that those of us, who are committed to moving forward, can easily overcome.”
“As the TUSD Board President, I want to reassure the community that I will do all within my power to focus on moving the District forward by ensuring that processes, such as those mentioned here, continue forward to full success,” continued Hicks. “I will not allow a few bumps and ill-intended distractions to detour me or others from moving forward.”
No one believes at this point, that the Board will vote unanimously for any candidate, but Hicks believes that the District continues to hold great promise and urges his fellow Board members to act in a manner that was clearly expressed by the voters: they want stability but recognize the need to change the way the District does business.
“The public is clamoring for transparency, and accountability. It was clear that in the past, administrations failed to increase transparency and still refuse to take responsibility for poor decision making that led to issues like a surplus of Prop 301 monies. Going forward, the public has my promise that we will explain as much as is legally possible about what we are doing, when we are doing it, and why we are doing it. Nothing in law prevents us from engaging in a transparent process. Because we are dealing with personnel issues there is some need for Executive Sessions. But we have seen that there are some who will take advantage of Executive Sessions and misrepresent by implication what is happening. For too long this District’s business has been conducted behind closed doors. That is going to stop now.”