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So Long Sánchez

TUSD superintendent resigns under pressure from new board majority

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Tucson's largest school district accepted Superintendent H.T. Sanchez's resignation at the governing board's Feb. 28 meeting after two highly contentious weeks.

The Tucson Unified School District's newest board member Rachael Sedgwick brought the superintendent's future with the district into question with a last-minute agenda item on Feb. 13. It gathered enough attention to pack the board's meetings for three consecutive weeks.

Community members voiced their concerns for and against Sánchez, with notably more people speaking in his support.

It became clear, after the resignation was accepted with a 3-2 vote, that the board had no immediate plan as to who would replace Sánchez. They're collecting names of interim and long-term candidates, Sedgwick said.

"People have been reaching out, letting me know they're interested, and they know of other people who are interested or qualified," she said in an interview on March 3.

She wouldn't specify who these people were or what fields they're in, but said that they're very familiar with TUSD.

Sedgwick said they're looking for someone who will focus on "instruction," which she clarified to mean raising student enrollment, student achievement levels and the percentage of TUSD funds spent on the classroom.

The qualifications she's looking for in a candidate includes being a "superstar" and "fabulous instructional leader," as well as fostering strong relationships with the business community, the faith-based community, the legislature and community leaders.

Frequent traveling to the Arizona legislature in Phoenix was one of the things Sedgwick previously cited as being an issue she had with Sánchez.

Sánchez seemed to foster those relationships Sedgwick finds important. Among his supporters were Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who sent the board an email in support of Sánchez prior to the resignation, and Mike Varney, CEO and president of the Tucson Metro Chamber, who spoke at the Feb. 21 board meeting.

Varney listed things he believed Sánchez achieved, including reducing class sizes, enrollment declines, dependence on desegregation funds and administration costs while raising graduation rates. He ended with a bit of advice to the board.

"It is easy to nitpick and find fault," he said. "How about doing some real work by coming together and uniting instead of constantly shuffling the deck?"

The board will have an interim superintendent very soon, said Board Member Mark Stegeman, who voted for accepting Sánchez's resignation.

"Time is of the essence," he said. "People need clarity."

He said there's no absolute list of qualifications a candidate for superintendent must have but that knowing about the district, the schools and the people is important.

These are also qualifications Sánchez seemed to have down. Many supporters at the meetings leading up to his resignation recounted times they saw him at school events and times he had personally helped their children.

TUSD employees threw a party in his honor, four days after he resigned. There were only three out of the district's 87 school principals not present at the party where he received a standing ovation, said Board Member Kristel Foster, one of his vocal supporters.

Foster called losing Sanchez "a tragedy."

"We were making such progress, and to cut it short right now—it's a disaster," Foster said. "It makes no sense why any elected official would do this to the district.

As part of the resignation, Sánchez received a payout of $200,000, about half of what the district would have paid him if he'd stayed until the end of his contract in June 2018.

The district was not achieving as it should be, said Stegeman. But he doesn't blame Sánchez. He blames the board.

"The board is ultimately responsible for everything," he said. "The buck stops with the board."

Some of the things he sees as issues include overspending on central administration, over-management of schools, low student achievement, student discipline problems and poor customer service.

The number of TUSD students who pass state assessment tests fell drastically since Sánchez became superintendent, as have the statewide test scores, according to the Arizona Auditor General. In that same time, classroom spending had a slight decrease and administration costs saw a slight increase.

Stegeman would like to see an interim superintendent in place by March 14, and ultimately find someone who has "institutional, cultural values that align with the board."

"In six months, the district will be in a better place," he said.

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