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A Board Divided 

The TUSD school board finally picks a committee to help select a replacement for the late Judy Burns

When Tucson Unified School District governing-board member Judy Burns unexpectedly passed away in late October, many people said it would be difficult to find a replacement who could fill her shoes.

Turns out it's been difficult to even start the process of finding her replacement.

Pima County Schools Superintendent Linda Arzoumanian asked the board to appoint five members, plus an alternate, to serve on a community advisory committee charged with interviewing and recommending board-member candidates. The final decision on the appointment will be made by Arzoumanian.

On Tuesday, Nov. 15, the remaining four TUSD board members were able to select four candidates, but debated at length on who to choose for the fifth spot. No decision could be made, and the board asked Arzoumanian to appoint the fifth member.

In response, Arzoumanian sent a letter to board president Miguel Cuevas, giving the board until Nov. 30 to select a fifth member and an alternate. If they didn't, she said, she'd call for a special election in March—which would cost the district close to $1 million.

Cuevas called a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 21, but several hours before the 7 p.m. meeting was to start, rumors circulated that board members Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks would not attend.

Stegeman, in response to an email from the Tucson Weekly, responded via email that he told the governing-board office he had conflicts that could not be rescheduled, including a class he teaches at the UA.

"I told them that early this morning (Monday, Nov. 21) and asked them please to postpone to tomorrow, and I am surprised they did not," Stegeman wrote. "They posted the meeting on Friday before they even asked about my schedule, which was strange from the beginning. I learned about the meeting from someone who saw it on the Web; they initially scheduled it at 6:30, in the middle of my Monday-evening lecture!"

While waiting to see if Stegeman and Hicks would arrive, Cuevas said he was under the impression that Stegeman would be there, based on an e-mail he received from Stegeman.

"If I feel there is an emergency that requires a meeting, I am going to call it," Cuevas said, explaining that Stegeman called for a couple of special meetings while he was the board president. "(The) president of the board has the authority. ... I am at a loss for words. If two individuals decided not to come, then we cannot operate. ... I am very disappointed in the board members who have not shown up."

Board member Adelita Grijalva remarked that she was concerned the lack of attendance could be the beginning of a pattern.

"We have business we have to get through. ... It concerns me people are playing games with the lives of children in this district," Grijalva said.

The special meeting ended up being rescheduled for the next day, Tuesday, Nov. 22. The board again had difficulty selecting a fifth member—and had problems even picking a process to make the selection. Cuevas, as board president, eventually made the decision to pick Juan Ciscomani as the fifth member, and Colleen Niccum as the alternate.

Before Cuevas' decision, Grijalva said, the board met in executive session to discuss how to come up with a process to select the fifth member.

"If four of us cannot come up with an agreement, I encourage you to submit a name and alternate," she said she told Cuevas.

Cuevas responded: "I've already stuck my neck out for this issue to build consensus. ... I don't see that happening. ... I've been thinking about this issue and what occurred last night. We need to do what is in the best interest of our students." He then nominated Ciscomani, and the board affirmed the nomination.

Ciscomani, who was originally nominated by Stegeman, works as membership co-director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC). The other advisory committee members are TUSD parent Tola Barker, nominated by Cuevas; community member Steve Holmes, nominated by Grijalva; business owner Charles Weisel, nominated by Hicks; and TUSD teacher Michele Harbour, nominated by Stegeman. Alternate Niccum, nominated by Cuevas, works for Raytheon Missile Systems and is a member of the SALC.

According to Ricardo Hernandez, the chief financial officer for Pima County Schools Superintendent's Office, the committee will meet for the first time on Friday, Dec. 2, with Arzoumanian, to establish expectations and deadlines. He said there are no established criteria, but committee members will be provided with a set of questions to use during the candidate-interview process.

"The committee will make a determination on who to recommend based on their own deliberations of the responses provided to the interview questions," Hernandez wrote in an email to the Weekly. Hernandez said the interview questions that will be provided to the committee were not available for public review.

Arzoumanian's office received 54 qualified applications, and each applicant will be interviewed by the committee. The Weekly received all the applications through a public-records request.

Applicants include former TUSD board member Bruce Burke, whose name was already floating around as a possible placeholder until 2012 elections. Former TUSD board candidates Miguel Ortega and Armand Salese are also in the mix, and both told the Weekly they plan to again run for the school board, even if they do not get the appointment.

Ortega has an online petition and hopes to get 500 signatures to present to the advisory committee. He has also been talking to the school board members and TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone, although he hadn't yet been able to talk with Hicks as of our deadline.

"I'm trying to show that I take this seriously, and I'm making an effort," Ortega said about the online petition.

Salese has run unsuccessfully for the school board twice.

"This will be my third attempt," he said. "There is no critical thinking taking place on the board directed at the kids."

Salese, an attorney of record on a libel lawsuit filed by former TUSD teacher John Ward against the Mexican-American studies department director and a teacher, said if he was selected, he would withdraw from the case.

More by Mari Herreras

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