As Tucson's largest school district battles against the state's Ethnic Studies witch hunt at a special administrating appeal hearing in Phoenix this week, a groundswell of students, parents and community members is calling for the resignation of the district's increasingly erratic school board president at Tuesday's upcoming board meeting.
After bungling an unnerving school board incident earlier this month and dropping a bombshell accusation at the state hearing on Friday, some observers are wondering if TUSD school board president Mark Stegeman's reckless behavior has also endangered the district's children and careers of their esteemed teachers.
"As school board president, Stegeman has redefined failure," said Becky Harvey, whose daughter graduated from the Mexican American Studies program and now attends the university. "His disgraceful actions and words have escalated tensions and created a volatile atmosphere."
Only a week after Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) stepped onto the floor of Congress in a dramatic return to the public arena, Stegeman overruled member objections and board policy and allowed a self-proclaimed Tea Party activist to continue an inflammatory tirade on "civil war" and Ethnic Studies at the August 9th board meeting. The speaker, John White, was unequivocal: "We don't care about law enforcement."
White, who had already been apprehended by security officers for attempting to enter the board meeting with a knife that evening, was no stranger to Stegeman; he had appeared before the board earlier in the summer. He flipped off board member Adelita Grijalva and called her father, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a "traitor." A month earlier he had circulated a conspiracy video on Facebook that Giffords' attempted murder was set up by the Department of Homeland Security. On a Tea Party website last summer, he wrote: "Demorats are a cancer and you do not cure cancer you cut it out and KILL IT DAMMIT. They are NOT ONE OF US. I was trained to kill Communist. ALL of them. I say CIVIL WAR if you have the guts."
The audience, which included students, was stunned by Stegeman's defiance to bend district policy to accommodate the diatribe on "slaughter" only days after Giffords had courageously stepped back into the public eye -- the first appearance after months of recovery from the shooting tragedy in Tucson that took six lives and wounded 13 others in January. The board president's act appeared especially duplicitous in the eyes of many who had witnessed Stegeman's and Superintendent John Pedicone's excessive police crackdown and arrest of elderly non-violent Mexican American activists in May, one of whom had simply attempted to read a historic letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One student asked: What was Stegemen waiting for -- another tragedy?
Only days after Gifford's shooting in January, in fact, CNN reporters had gone to the classroom of Mexican American Studies teacher Curtis Acosta and noted his use of poetry recitation in easing growing ethnic tensions.
Stegeman took a decidedly different approach at the state administrative hearing that started on Friday, dropping a bombshell appraisal of MAS teacher Jose Gonzalez's and Acosta's classes -- which have also been profiled by the New York Times and featured in the film documentary, Precious Knowledge -- by referring to the Mexican American Studies program as a "cult."
A cult? According to a recent audit commissioned by Arizona's state superintendent of public instruction, the MAS program was not only in full compliance with Arizona laws, but students in the MAS high school program "graduate in the very least at a rate of 5 percent more than their counterparts in 2005, and at the most, a rate of 11 percent more in 2010." Scholars and educators from across the country have hailed Tucson's MAS program as "the nation's most innovative and successful academic and instructional program in Ethnic Studies at the secondary school level."
"These teachers excel at the very principles the district has promoted, rigor, relevance and relationship," said local educator Kristel Foster. "The school board president now says that rigorous books are inappropriate, that social justice is irrelevant and that the relationship, this strong community of learners, is a cult. Every move he makes shows his lack of experience and understanding of what quality, effective education is."
Stegeman's charged testimony not only bolstered the notorious witch hunt by Tea Party and extremist Republicans officials in Phoenix, and backdoor efforts by TUSD administrators to dismantle one of their district's most successful programs, but reminded Tucsonans of the public outrage the board president caused last spring when he attempted unilaterally to demote the Mexican American Studies courses into electives.
Seemingly oblivious to any issues of defamation or fallout of his comment on the careers of two esteemed educators who have been in the district for nearly two decades, Stegeman's newfound accusation conflicted with his earlier support of the MAS program, which has been in existence since 1998. It also raised an important paradox: If Stegeman found the MAS program to be a "cult" in March, why did he subsequently praise the program and propose it as an elective that should be taken by all students in the district?
"Dr. Mark Stegeman's character assassination of our MAS department teachers is most troubling to me and I feel it is out-and-out evil," Gonzalez said. "Dr. Stegeman's characterization of our classes as "cult-like" is a very serious accusation; moreover, grounds for libel. Our MAS teachers are experienced, dedicated professionals who have had stellar careers with TUSD, and are renowned nationally in the educational profession. To characterize our MAS teachers' years of dedicated experience to Tucson Unified School District as a "cult" is negligent at best and bigoted at worst."
"Dr. Stegeman's comments about his visit to my classroom were not only inaccurate and irresponsible, but spiteful. His testimony disregarded eighty minutes of my instruction, the entire content of the class, and all my interaction with the students. He even inaccurately represented the poem we recite which is based upon loving and seeing all human beings as equal.
What is most disturbing is that Dr. Stegeman had said nothing but positive comments publicly after his March 25th visit to our class, including a personal comment to me about how engaged the students were in the lesson. I have heard from other individuals that he made similar complimentary notions of his visit to my class, so I am puzzled and disheartened by this radical change and mischaracterization of the events in March.
Lastly, I am most concerned about the damaging effect this might have upon my relationships with my new students and their parents. As a TUSD employee for over fifteen years, who has served this district with distinction, I am appalled that I may need to address and refute these allegations with the families I am privileged to serve."
"Specifically, I have twenty years of teaching experience, and I have worked tirelessly with a sense of responsibility to my students and parents to be a well-prepared professional who puts his students' educational growth first and foremost. For Dr. Stegeman in his testimony to suggest that I would change my planned lesson to accommodate his visit, or moreover, would use my students as a political ploy, is downright malicious. Obviously, Dr. Stegeman has an "axe to grind," so to speak. Dr. Stegeman has lost the confidence of our staff and community, therefore, must resign."
Over the past year, Stegeman has occasionally noted his regret on how he bungled the spring meetings and community response; the Oro Valley-based Superintendent Pedicone, who deemed the students as "pawns" of adults and has generally referred to the Ethnic Studies crisis as a "distraction," has also publicly commented on his mishandling of the student and community response.
This coming Tuesday, however, the disgraced board president appears to have come to the end of his term. In an email exchange with Harvey after the August 9th debacle, Stegeman wrote: "Anyone who organizes a recall is probably doing me a favor. This job is not fun."
Harvey and a growing movement across the city would agree.
"His reckless leadership and now this horrible attempt to discredit successful students and teachers are unacceptable," Harvey said. "His actions and words are disgraceful. TUSD and our community deserve better. Stegeman should step down from the TUSD board immediately."