The games Mark Stegeman plays

by David Safier

I went on the Bill Buckmaster Show today and talked about a TUSD-related topic that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves: the politically charged nature of the TUSD Board. No serious followers of the State Legislature or Congress would be foolish enough to think they can observe elected officials' speeches, tactics and decisions without considering the players' political motivations. Savvy observers try to peek behind the curtain to figure out what's really going on behind all the posturing for the public. But when we turn to TUSD, too often we forget to ask ourselves, What are the politics behind what people say and do? I'm not referring to Democratic and Republican politics here. I'm talking about "politics" in a more general sense, where there's more to people's actions than meets the eye. Politics are behind much of what's been happening lately at TUSD, and it's played with great skill by the master gamesman on the Board, Mark Stegeman, who is both a scholar and a practitioner of Economics Game Theory.

I went into the subject of TUSD politics on today's Buckmaster Show for 10 minutes starting at about the 30 minute mark, specifically in reference to the superintendent search. I delve into it in more detail on the show than I will here, so I recommend you give it a listen. Bill and I go on about TUSD and also discuss the Sunnyside Board meeting that will decide Manuel Isquierdo's fate after that, and Steve Farley discusses the legislative session at the beginning of the show. It's all reasonably interesting, but I think I can safely say, you haven't heard what I have to say about TUSD.

Things got very complicated on the TUSD board during the Mexican-American Studies controversy, but there was a reasonably solid 3-2 or 4-1 majority that was likely to go along with Huppenthal and dismantle the MAS program. Many of us hoped for a different outcome, but few people were surprised by the vote to end MAS. However, the Board composition changed significantly in November when Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster replaced two moderate-to-conservative Board members. Together with Adelita Grijalva, the new Board members form a 3-2 progressive majority, leaving Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks with far less power and influence than they once had. Hicks may be willing to accept his role as a back bencher, but Stegeman is having none of it, and he's ratcheting up his political tactics to gain whatever advantage he can.

Stegeman is an Economics prof at UA's Eller College. His field of specialization is Game Theory, which he refers to on his campaign website as "the study of strategic decision making." Stegeman's 2009 paper on the topic is titled, “Leadership Based on Asymmetric Information." His basic thesis, as it's described in an article on the Eller website, is that a leader can benefit from restricting the amount of information others have. That way, others don't have sufficient knowledge to make decisions which might be contrary to what the leader wants. If the leader can win the followers' trust, she/he can push forward an agenda without others knowing enough to mount an informed opposition. In the paper, Stegeman also applies the concept to politics, where a leader endorses a candidate without revealing the candidate's weaknesses, hoping the followers' trust in the leader's opinion and their restricted information will make them vote the leader's way.

There's nothing earth shattering about the thesis of Stegeman's paper, but the fact that this kind of manipulation is what Stegeman is most interested in sheds an interesting light on his actions as a Board member. (The Eller article states "Economists rarely study leadership," but apparently Stegeman is interested enough in the use of "asymmetric information" as a leadership tool to choose it over the usual areas of economic study.) He makes good use of his understanding of game theory on the Board to try and bend decisions to his will even if the majority opinion is against him. I've seen Stegeman structure votes in a way that other Board members vote contrary to their beliefs, then they say later, "That's not what I thought I voted for." I've read newsletters he sends to people on his email list which slice and dice information in a way that leads his readers to reach the conclusions he wants them to reach by telling them only what he wants them to know. There's nothing unusual about a politician using these techniques, but that's the point. If observers don't apply what they know about politics when they try to understand what's going on at TUSD, they can't understand why the Board members act as they do.

It's unfortunate that we know so little about the superintendent search, but part of the problem is built into the system. Many of the most important discussions and events concerning the search happen in executive session, and what happens in executive session is confidential. That means Board members can't reveal what decisions were made in the superintendent selection process, nor can they reveal what the candidates said during the Board interviews. For someone like Stegeman who trades in the restricting information, this gives him the latitude he needs to shape people's perceptions of the process by structuring the limited information they have. My sense is, concern over Stegeman's wheelings and dealings is what drove the majority of the Board to choose a single finalist rather than coming up with a longer list of possible candidates to present to the public.

I admit, I'm arriving at my conclusions about the superintendent search by reading tea leaves, but tea leaves are all any of us have, because we aren't allowed to see what goes on behind the Board's closed doors. I'm certain if some of the Board members were allowed to speak freely about the process, we would have a far different impression of what's been going on. What I know for sure is, it's naive to think we can understand and interpret the Board members' actions without considering the high stakes politics involved.

0 responses to “The games Mark Stegeman plays

  1. Jeff Rogers

    I’m thinking that Jana might be a good candidate for TUSD board next year.

  2. I heard Pedicone’s Buckmaster interview and it got me wondering if board member interference had something to do with the resignation. How you got confidential “insider knowledge” from that is beyond me. You should take a deep breath, count to ten and take a walk around the block before you make those kinds of accusations. Especially when you make them anonymously.

    What is really curious is that I agree with most of what you say. I don’t want board members to be led by the nose. I think your reaction comes from not understanding what Pedicone said. He said that there is a process for board members when they receive constituent complaints. Also, that after presenting it to him, if he isn’t doing his job to see that it is resolved, then the board members have every right to get involved. Listen to the seven minutes. Pedicone did not say that board members need to butt out. It was about interference that hampers effective management. Did Pedicone operate the way he described it? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. I’m not one of his fans, so I can imagine the worst, but am not going to speculate. I’m not defending anything he did, just saying that his comments about how the process should work and the problems when board members don’t let the administration do their jobs are sound. But hell yes, I think board members should be involved in the schools and community and understand what is going on.

  3. “My sense is, concern over Stegeman’s wheelings and dealings is what drove the majority of the Board to choose a single finalist rather than coming up with a longer list of possible candidates to present to the public.”

    Looks like you and maybe Jana have inside information that the rest of us don’t. This seems like executive session insider knowledge?

    I too have extensive TUSD experience and this is politics as usual, remember Joel? He was also as savy as you say Stegeman is. The current president of the board has extensive board member experience and is also good at wheeling and dealing. But I would ask when members have power, for whose benefit is this alleged power? As to the members inserting themselves on the goings-on at the district well thank God because if it were not for members like Judy, McCorkle or even Ireland who did dig deeper than only listen to what the district leadersip told them then teachers and support staff would be in even worse shape than they are today. They made it clear that they were elected to oversee the management of the district and that the superintendent worked for them, not the other way around, as this most recent leadership team believed. We do elect a 5 member board, and I do expect that there are more than 3 people listening to the community. It seems that there are some who would have us believe that we can only trust three. Two of which we have no experience in board leadership and who themselves have very little to no knowledge about what it is like to work in TUSD and its leadership. I am amongst those who do agree that bringing one person for the community to meet, even though the board promised a different process, is not right. And that trust us does not suffice. My question to the board is “Why is it that parts of the process is held a secret? Why can’t they talk about it? (as you say in your article) Was there a hidden process not revealed to us by the board?

    The procces as I understand it is: advertise, paper screen, sift and come up with a final number to interview (say 4 applicants in this case), exec session for interviews, each member speaks to their choice or choices, present to the community, interview again if necessary, select. So which part other than not being able to discuss interviews in public is secret?

    So who knows all the politics? Doesn’t everyone on the board practice politics? Do some of you out there know exactly what the other four members are all about? If so please enlighten the rest of us. All I know is that board members need to be leaders. That they should NOT take district leadership at their word when hundreds of employees say the opposite of what is really happening in the district. Board members should go to schools and service departments so they understand how to make better decisions and learn for themselves how their policies, which are crafted by TUSD leadership, play out. They SHOULD propose district initiatives (because of what they have learned), be proactive and respond to the TUSD community who elected them. Employees know all too well that superintendents don’t care about what employees think because as they all say- they answer to the Board- in turn the Board answers to us. And if they don’t listen and act on our behalf they may be on their out the door. So I do expect more from Board members, and I do expect that they seek out answers to questions that they pose to leadership. It’s not necessarily the board who protects the status quo but those in leadership positions who find themselves all too comfortable in what they have created and who then are willing to vilify those who may ask one too many questions. That includes Board members.

  4. I will back track a bit. Upon listening to that portion of Pedicone’s interview again, his comments were not in response to a query as to why he was leaving, but a direct question about superintendent/board member relations. Still, he spoke on the issue for almost 7 minutes, so had a lot to say. (Buckmaster 4/19, minute 15-22).

    That type of behavior would not only cause a superintendent to cut loose from TUSD, it would also cause candidates to pass on the district. The superintendent serves at the pleasure of the board, so a troublesome board member is a big deal. As if TUSD doesn’t have enough negative attributes.

  5. David Safier

    So Jana, you’re saying that Stegeman might have been a significant part of the reason Pedicone is leaving early. Very interesting perspective. Most people, myself included, have read this differently, that Pedicone saw the writing on the wall when Cam and Kristel were elected and decided he was no longer in sync with the Board. But if that’s not the reason, if he left because Mark “inserts himself into school- and district-level affairs,” that would give Pedicone’s early exit a very different meaning. Mark was on Pedicone’s side more often than not when it came to voting, so this would have to do with Mark’s behavior more than his actual votes. I analyzed Mark’s style, but maybe there’s even more going on here than I’m aware of. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

  6. David Safier

    What Jana said.

  7. Bess and Mariana, Read Dave’s post more carefully. He’s saying that what you see on the surface is most likely only a fraction of what you need to know to truly understand what is going on and who is playing what kind of games. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the three board members who put Sanchez forward as the lone candidate agree with you that putting only one candidate forward is not the best process. Don’t assume that they did it because they are out of touch with people. They did it for a reason and I suspect it has less to do with their political games than with Stegeman’s. He is a destructive force and wants to get his way no matter the cost to the district.

    Why did Pedicone leave when he did? The only time I heard him deviate from his talking points, he talked about how difficult it is when a board member inserts himself into school- and district-level affairs, instead of passing on concerns and stepping back to see how the supe and staff will deal with it. Maybe he was referring to Stegeman, or maybe someone else.

    We don’t know what goes on in executive session, but Stegeman certainly showed us his gamesmanship on the dais in December. Remember when he offered what he later confessed was a motion that had no effect in order to confuse Grijalva and get her to vote for the deseg order? That was only minutes after she said that she intended to vote no to the entire USP if it contained the objection to MAS as core classes. What was at stake for Stegeman to pull that type of shenanigan and make the TUSD Board a laughing stock once more? He wanted to present Judge Bury with a 5-0 vote in support of the objection, instead of a 4-1 vote. He had a near melt down explaining that it was CRITICAL that the USP go forward unanimously. Funny that he didn’t think unanimity was important a month later when the board voted 3-2 to remove the objection. His hypocrisy lays bare his true motivations.

    Mark, do us all a favor. Pick up your marbles and play your games somewhere else.

  8. Jeff Rogers

    Excellent analysis, Dave!

  9. You talk about a progressive board. Two of those board members have been on the board for about six months. They have no idea about the real workings of TUSD. If they made visitations to schools, they missed mine.
    As a matter of fact, the only board member who has ever come was Mark Stegeman. I rarely agree with his opinions, but at least he got out and talked to people. In this instance, Mark is right. It was wrong to send only one candidate out. And one with no experience at that.

  10. Since I moved to Tucson, this is the first time TUSD Board presented to the public just one finalist. Unlike other organizations or companies, they didn’t have to, by statue. This situation made me uncomfortable enough to contact Board members. Mark Stageman, regardless of what he studies or what he writes, got it right this time. I don’t always agree with his stands, but I fully support both his “No” votes.