You know that saying that's meant to question our perceptions of reality, "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" That's kind of how it felt after a Tucson Unified School District governing board meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11.
On the agenda was a vote to approve or object to the latest version of the district's desegregation plan, moving the district closer to ending an almost 40-year-old desegregation lawsuit, Fisher-Mendoza v. TUSD. However, many longtime observers were left confused when they were told the vote they observed was not really the vote they observed.
As part of the legal procedures in the deseg process, U.S. District Judge David Bury assigned a desegregation specialist as a special master to work with all parties involved: the attorneys from MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, who represents the Mendoza plaintiffs; attorney Ruben Salter, representing the Fisher plaintiffs; TUSD, which is represented by the law firm DeConcini McDonald Yetwin and Lacy; and the U.S. Department of Justice.
On Monday, Dec. 10, special master Willis Hawley released a final desegregation proposal for Bury. The following Friday was Bury's deadline for all briefs and objections filed by the parties, which also included state Attorney General Tom Horne. So, the point of the governing board vote on Tuesday was to approve or object to the plan before it went to Bury.
However, board member Adelita Grijalva said she would not be able to vote for the deseg plan if it included the district's November objection to making the culturally relevant curriculum part of the district's core classes. The curriculum is identified in the new deseg proposal as Mexican-American and African-American studies.
"There are significant sections to the unitary plan that I support. And so if there is a way to separate out the culturally relevant courses from the rest of the document, then I would be able to support a vast majority of the unitary plan," Grijalva said. "But if not, then I would have to vote no to the unitary plan. I don't know how to do that."
As of last week, the district hadn't posted the resolution it adopted Dec. 11 on the TUSD website or made one available when requested, but Stegeman read a staff-prepared statement to approve the desegregation plan noting two new objections—the hiring of professional development deadlines and the creation of a task force, as well as the objection to core classes.
To appease Grijalva, board president Miguel Cuevas asked Stegeman if he was willing to separate the objection to making the culturally relevant classes part of the core curriculum for a separate vote. Stegeman agreed, and the deseg resolution passed 5-0. Then the separate resolution objecting to the classes was defeated 3-2, with Grijalva, Cuevas and Alexandre Sugiyama voting no, and Michael Hicks and Stegeman voting yes.
Sylvia Campoy, a Mendoza representative and former TUSD school board member told me that evening she was "floating" after watching the votes and was so overcome that she turned at the doors and said, "Thank you," to the board. Campoy said what she understood had happened was the return of the Mexican-American Studies program in fall 2013.
Other media coverage and Facebook was an interesting social gauge, with MAS supporters excitedly posting about the return of the program. What was confusing, and which only reinforced that belief, was what occurred later at the meeting. Stegeman asked for a five-minute break, and after it was over, asked if someone who voted with the majority on the second vote would be willing to bring it back for reconsideration. (For a play-by-play of the meeting, see "Sunday Morning Primer: WTF Happened at the Tuesday TUSD Board Meeting?" at The Range).
"We had a split vote earlier on my motion to object to one paragraph in the unitary plan. And I don't want the board on record with split votes on this issue. So I would request that a member of the majority ask to reconsider, and then I would hope that we can vote that down unanimously to avoid a split vote," Stegeman said.
Although Grijalva questioned the move, Stegeman was basically asking that everyone vote to defeat his own motion. Hicks was visibly confused and asked the board to go into executive session to get a better understanding. When the board returned, the objection was defeated unanimously in a revote.
But Grijalva was cautious and specifically asked TUSD attorney Martha Durkin exactly what her no vote meant. Durkin explained that voting yes supported the district's objection to the core classes. "So a no vote would mean that we are removing the objection (to the core classes), the district's previous objection," Grijalva said. Cuevas interjected an explanation, "An additional objection that was submitted. That does not have anything to do with our original objections that were submitted in executive session."
After the revote, the meeting continued and didn't end until after 11 p.m. For some MAS supporters, what did or did not take place that night wasn't understood until Grijalva posted this on her Facebook page: "Unfortunately the TUSD board vote tonight regarding Culturally Relevant Courses only voted down an ADDITIONAL objection to CRCs as core classes. The initial objection filed by TUSD is still in effect. This issue will be rectified at 1st meeting with new board in January."
The next day, Cara Rene, TUSD's communications and media relations director, issued a statement of clarification that the board approved the desegregation plan, but it was subject to objections, which includes objections filed in November, adding that in the first vote the board approved "two new objections in regards to hiring timelines of district personnel and the creation of a task force."
Grijalva told the Tucson Weekly she thought the second vote was a directive to withdraw TUSD's objection to keeping the culturally relevant classes in the core curriculum, and she also thought that legal counsel understood this, too.
Grijalva said her remedy is to bring the vote back before the board on Tuesday, Jan. 8, when newly elected board members Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster are seated. Both have said that they support the return of the MAS classes.
While Stegeman was adamant about a revote, he told me by email it wasn't really that big of a deal, "It was not critical to revote the second motion, which had already failed, but I thought that voting it down unanimously would at least clarify that the board was adopting a united position and that the second motion was substantively unimportant, even if it had passed."
Stegeman also wrote that if Grijalva's goal was to reverse the district's objection filed in November, that "would have required a motion to do that. Simply voting down a motion— any motion— has no legal impact."
We sent emails to Sugiyama, Hicks and Cuevas to get their views on the vote, but had not received any responses as of press time.