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Lesher hires Sunnyside sup't Steve Holmes amid Pima County leadership shuffle

Steve Holmes, superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District, will become a deputy county administrator, officials announced Friday, filling a hole left behind by County Administrator Jan Lesher after she took over for Chuck Huckelberry. The move comes as Lesher reorganizes leadership and prepares for more retirements.

Holmes has 28 years of experience in public education and has spent the past seven years as superintendent of Sunnyside, where he attended K-12 schools. He was previously an assistant superintendent of the district, and also worked for the Tucson Unified School District. 

"It has been the honor of a lifetime serving the district and the community that raised me," Holmes said.

The superintendent is being brought over as Lesher revamps the county’s leadership structure. Holmes is filling a position left vacant when the Board of Supervisors tasked Lesher with running county bureaucracy after Huckelberry was injured last fall. Lesher was hired permanently in the role of top administrator in April, after Huckelberry announced his resignation — but a TucsonSentinel.com investigation revealed that he had actually retired on July 4, 2021, and had been receiving both his pension and salary, unbeknownst to the supervisors.

Lesher is hiring Holmes to solve “management needs,” she wrote in a memo to the Board of Supervisors. She will eliminate all assistant county administrator position, and hire Holmes as a deputy county administrator with eight departments reporting directly to him — including public defense services, the public fiduciary, IT, fleet services and grants management.

Holmes will start working for Pima County on July 18 and will join Carmine DeBonis Jr and Dr. Francisco Garcia as a trio of deputy administrators. He’ll make $230,000 a year with the county, about $80,000 more than his base salary as Sunnyside superintendent. July 18 will also be the effective date of the county’s reorganization.

His departure will mean Sunnyside will need to hire a new superintendent.

Holmes "came into SUSD during a very tumultuous time where our community trust had been broken during the previous era," district Governing Board President Consuelo Hernandez told the Sentinel, calling him a "breath of fresh air."

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"We accomplished so much together and I am confident his skills will also serve us for the benefit of Pima County as a whole," she said. SUSD's board will meet in an executive session on June 14 to discuss a transition to new leadership, she said.

Lesher is moving several departments out from under the purview of Mark Napier, the former Pima County sheriff who was hired by Huckelberry to be an assistant county administrator. Napier plans to retire in the next six months, but Lesher is bumping him to a senior advisor role along with Dr. Yves Khawam — another assistant county administrator — and executive-level county assistants Diana Durazo and Nicole Fyffe, effective July 1.

Napier’s position won’t be filled once he retires, but the four senior advisors will report directly to Lesher. Napier had been overseeing the office of emergency management, public defense services and facilities management. Those departments will now report to Garcia, Holmes and DeBonis, respectively.

Michelle Campagne, the director of County Finance and Risk Management, will also step into a part-time senior advisor position for at least one year starting on August 15, but she’s retiring as a department director on July 1.

Campagne will be double-dipping into the county payroll by collecting both a pension and her part-time pay as senior advisor. The plan, which is legal under state law, was disclosed to the supervisors to comply with retirement transparency policies put in place after the Sentinel uncovered that Huckelberry had been collecting both his pension and full-time pay as county administrator.

Holmes is being brought on for his “experience managing and transforming systems that are similar in many ways to those of Pima County," Lesher wrote in a memo. He had a workforce of 2,000 employees under him at Sunnyside, which has about 14,000 students.

“Under Holmes’ leadership the (Sunnyside) district has been committed to fiscal accountability and greater organizational efficiency, which stabilized the district’s budget during a time of declining enrollment,” county officials wrote in a press release.

County officials lauded several accomplishments in a public statement such as that he moved the school district to a self-insured health plan, began a money-saving reduced energy and water use program and updated school technology and data systems.

Holmes graduated from the UA and has a master’s degree in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard. The Arizona Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents named him Superintendent of the Year for 2022. He also teaches a graduate class on school administration at the UA College of Education.

“Leaving Sunnyside has been a difficult decision. I have loved every day I spent in service to the students, parents, teachers, and staff of the wonderful Sunnyside community,” Holmes said in a public statement. “However, I’m ready for new challenges and new opportunities in my career. I’m excited to join Pima County at the start of a new era for county government and leadership.”

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Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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