Seven candidates are vying for three seats in this year’s general election for the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board. The three incumbents—Kristel Foster, Cam Juarez and Mark Stegeman—are facing four challengers: Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, Lori Riegel, Brett Rustand and Rachael Sedgwick.
One of the most controversial topics in the race is the leadership of TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, who has been the top administrator since 2013 and, thanks to a contract extension last year, is set to stay at least through 2018. Many of the challenging candidates said they feel the district’s leadership has some serious flaws.
With a new contract, Sanchez also gained a significant pay raise in comparison to his first year’s pay, including a bonus consisting of a $12,000 performance-based incentive; basically if he meets the outlined goals, he gets the added bonus to his salary that is currently based at $210,000. He also received a $120,000 incentive to stay in his current position for at least three years, which he has successfully done, according to a previous Weekly
The goals are big problem with the incumbents’ challengers. The majority of them claim Sanchez has just not met many of those that he and the board proposed. One of the main problem the challengers addressed in their campaigns is district enrollment. Since 2000, the district has lost more than 13,000 students, dropping from 61,280 to 48,078 in the 15-year time span, according to reports from TUSD online enrollment data. While enrollment has clearly been an ongoing issue before Sanchez arrived, one of his most recent goals is to maintain rather than increase the district’s enrollment.
Kristel Foster, current board member up for reelection and Sunnyside School District instructor, said the reason for the performance measure came down to setting realistic goals.
“I think that was realistic, you have to set realistic goals,” Foster said. “We had lost 1,600 students and the next year about 800 and we have to be realistic because of the funding. We have to plan our budget on those enrollment numbers.”
Looking back Sanchez’s record, Foster said she thinks he is very committed to the district despite superintendent turnover being so high over the past years.
Overall, the challengers are said they are completely unhappy with how Sanchez has performed and say his record is one of the reasons that they are running for the non-partisan seat.
Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, who is making her third run for a board seat, said she believes Sanchez isn’t trustworthy and the fault is to be put on the current board majority for not questioning the superintendent.
“It must make life very difficult for them, but they don’t question it,” Putnam-Hidalgo said.
She said Sanchez has done a “very poor” job in his position, but she saw some positives in his work, such as the gardening program in the district’s schools. But the positives don’t outweigh the bigger problems she sees, like improving academic achievement and resolving the long-running desegregation suit.
Her views don’t differ much from other candidates. Brett Rustand puts the responsibility on the board to oversee the superintendent and to prioritize what the district really needs.
“The board has failed to manage the superintendent properly,” Rustand said. “That’s really where that relationship has broken down.”
Rustand said the changes that need happen include specific oversight of the goals Sanchez had to meet. He also thinks the discipline policy hasn’t been properly implemented in the district. In order for change to happen, Rustand said the board must work as a team to help provide the oversight needed for the superintendent.
“You have got to sit together and see what the priorities are and how you weigh those priorities, so you can give that guidance to what is most important to you, as a board, and the community,” Rustand said. “So, the superintendent can focus on that. That’s where it really hasn’t been integrated, it’s been a really broken process.”
Incumbent TUSD board member and UA economics professor Mark Stegeman said Sanchez didn’t receive as much oversight as necessary from the board and the last year’s evaluation was not taken seriously by the board as a whole.
“I think that the evaluation process was too cursory and did look like a serious process and I think the public perceived it that way,” Stegeman said. “I do not think that the board, as a unit, exercised its oversight responsibilities.”
Stegeman said he thinks Sanchez did deserve a performance-based incentive, but he said $12,000 was higher than necessary. He said one problem the board needs to work out in the future is providing an open budget for the public.
“I think he deserved some of it, I wouldn’t have supported zero,” Stegeman said. “But I thought that what they did was too high and I would’ve voted something that was lower than that.”
All four of the challengers agree that budget transparency is a huge issue that contributed to their campaigns. For Rachael Sedgwick, the goals Sanchez proposes need to have specific numbers and plans for each initiative.
“Many people are very upset with him,” Sedgwick said. “I don’t think that Superintendent Sanchez has does a very good job with the district, specifically with academic achievement rates and student retention.”
Like Sedgwick, challenger Lori Riegel said she wants to numbers and explanation for the goals set by the superintendent.
“So, if the goal is to increase enrollment, then by how much? If the goal is to spend less on legal fees, then how are these goals going to be integrated,” Riegel said. “So, the superintendent needs specific and measureable goals and he needs to be held accountable for those goals.”
Incumbent Cam Juarez, who has supported Sanchez, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.