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Familiar faces - and controversial outsider - as TUSD releases list of sup't finalists

Kentucky candidate pushed out of district amid management audit, possible state takeover

Naming the four finalists to be the next TUSD superintendent the day after secretively picking them, officials announced three familiar candidates — ex-principal Stephen Trejo, elementary director Maria Marin, interim superintendent Gabriel Trujillo — and one outsider: Donna Hargens, who resigned under fire last month from her Kentucky district, which is being audited by the state over allegations of mismanagement.

While the three district candidates are well-known to local observers, Hargens carries some baggage. She was pushed out of her job as superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., with a buyout of her contract for more than $200,000.

TUSD officials refused to disclose the list of potential hires before the meeting Tuesday night, in which the Governing Board picked four finalists — but still refused to publicly release the names of those being considered to run Tucson's largest school district.

Instead, they delayed the announcement of the names, calling it a "professional courtesy" but not providing any legal justification for the move.

Kentucky news outlets reported that Hargens' departure after leading the district for six years, effective July 1 after being announced in April, came after months of controversy and a sweeping audit that is ongoing and could lead to a complete takeover of the district by the state.

Immediately after Hargens left, the acting superintendent said that the "culture and morale in our schools is at the lowest level it's been in years."

The state's Republican governor, Matt Bevin, called the district an "unmitigated disaster."

Most of the TUSD Governing Board members didn't immediately respond to questions about the choice of Hargens as a finalist. Kristel Foster declined to detail what knowledge the board had of the candidates' backgrounds, noting that they were reviewed in executive session, behind closed doors, and that she is barred from discussing those meetings.

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The Kentucky audit, announced in February, has been described as "unprecedented for a district anywhere near the size of the state's largest school district." Hargen's former district has about 100,000 students — more than twice the size of TUSD. Jefferson County Public Schools has a budget of $1.1 billion, with 18,000 employees.

From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

At its most extreme, the results of the exhaustive, top-to-bottom audit could lead to a state takeover of JCPS, with the Kentucky Department of Education handling finances, administration, operations and other responsibilities that would ordinarily be handled by the superintendent and the school board.

At the least, though, the audit signals that Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt has significant concerns that JCPS' management may be critically ineffective or inefficient.

Pruitt said he was particularly "bothered" by issues related to student safety, including with the use of restraint and seclusion. But he noted several other main areas of concern, as well, including problems with data discrepancies, disproportionate punishments to certain groups of students, poor district communication and a "complicated" district culture that in some cases has led to ineffective supervision or staff being afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal.

The Kentucky audit followed a management review that found the Louisville district failed to properly account for hundreds of incidents in which students were physically restrained, and that school staff were not appropriately trained in restraining students. In the 2014-2015 school year, there were more than 4,000 incidents in which Jefferson County students were physically restrained or put in seclusion, that review found. The review found that black special education students were more likely to be suspended for long terms than non-black students.

"JCPS has many of the top schools in the state and it also has the challenges of educating students who come to school with a variety of social and emotional needs," Hargens said in February.

Hargens was contacted with questions regarding her former district, but did not immediately respond Wednesday night.

Noting that being pushed out could be a "badge of honor," TUSD's Foster alluded to the divisions on the board here that led to the ouster of former Superintendent H.T. Sanchez last winter.

"I hope you'll find out what kind of board ran her out of town," Foster said. "We all get to check (the finalists) out this next two weeks."

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From WDRB in Louisville:

Under Hargens’ watch, the district has had a curriculum management audit and an unflattering examination of central office bureaucracy by former State Auditor Adam Edelen. In addition, recent test scores show that more than half of the district’s students are not performing on grade level in reading and math.

The data from the 2015-16 year showed that only 66 of the district's 139 tested schools met their annual performance goal set by the state – down from 74 schools in 2014-15 and 96 schools in 2013-14.

JCPS’ four-year graduation rate did increase from 79 percent to 80.1 percent, breaking the 80 percent mark for the first time. District officials say 6,108 students graduated in 2015-16 -- 164 more graduates than the previous year.

"Since 2011, JCPS increased its graduation rate ... doubled its college and career readiness rate, increased overall reading and math for every subgroup and increased the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes," (the school board chairman) said. "While the district has moved forward during the past six years, the board believes that the district must accelerate the pace of achievement."

Prior to her six years at Jefferson County, Hargens was the interim superintendent of the Wake County, N.C., district, where she had been the chief academic officer.

The locals

Gabriel Trujillo was tapped to be the interim chief of TUSD in March, after the contentious ouster of H.T. Sanchez.

Trujillo was serving as the district's  assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Before being hired in Tucson last year, he had been the HR director for the Phoenix Union High School District for several months, and before that the principal at Trevor G. Browne High School/Phoenix Union High School for seven years.

Stephen Trejo is the the chief academic officer of American Leadership Academy, a chain of charter schools in metro Phoenix and Las Vegas, since last July. Prior to that, he was the principal of TUSD's C.E. Rose Pre K-8 school for 13 years.

Maria Marin has been the director of TUSD's Elementary and preK-8 Schools since 2014, before that serving as the principal of John B. Wright Elementary School, beginning in 2008. She was the principal of Roskruge Elementary School, Roskruge Bilingual Middle Magnet School from 2005-2008, and principal of Carrillo Elementary School for three years prior to that.

B, G, P & W NYOB

Tuesday night, the TUSD Governing Board picked the four finalists, but boardmembers and district officials refused to release their identities. Instead, they resorted to referring to the finalist choices by letters, voting unanimously to interview "B, G, P and W" for the post.

The secrecy came despite the Arizona Supreme Court holding that the name and qualifications of a candidate for a high-level government job are precisely the business of the citizens of this state.

And this despite the fact that TUSD was smacked down by a judge for their funny business in trying to withhold information about the finalists for superintendent the last time around, when they hired H.T. Sanchez in 2013.

"These folks are unbelievable," said Dan Barr, an attorney and expert in public records law who brought that case, giving his take on TUSD's position Tuesday.

The next superintendent will be paid $180,000 to $230,000 annually, plus benefits, according to the district's job posting.

TUSD's top post still needs filling on a permanent basis after H.T. Sanchez was pushed out, resigning in February.

Sanchez, who was paid a base salary of $270,000 and a substantial benefit and incentive package to lead the district of about 50,000 students, was hired in 2013 to fill a spot left vacant after the sudden resignation of John Pedicone, who quit with more than a year his contract.

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Prior to Pedicone, the TUSD superintendent's chair was filled by Stan Paz, Roger Pfeuffer, Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, and interim chiefs John Carroll and Maggie Shafer.

Pedicone's predecessor, Celania-Fagen, also left the district early in her contract. She resigned from TUSD in 2010 after less than two years on the job, citing Arizona's cuts in education budgets for her move to a superintendent's post in Colorado.

Secret searches

As TucsonSentinel.com outlined Tuesday night, local governments carrying out searches for top hires behind closed doors isn't new, despite Arizona's public records laws.

And it's not new for those searches to turn up candidates with backgrounds that weren't known to Tucson officials.

In a 2013 embarrassment, a national consultant hired to vet candidates for Pima Community College chancellor so botched the search that an entirely new one had to be conducted.

One of two announced finalists for that post withdrew her name from consideration after PCC officials learned of fudged enrollment and $5.2 million in overbilling during her tenure at a former college. It took enterprising reporters about 30 seconds of Googling to discover that, but the professional consultant and college staff didn't.

At the time, the school was teetering on the precipice of being placed on probation by accreditors because of high-level mismanagement. It was, but how much worse would the drawn-out drama with the Higher Learning Commission been if the college had hired a chancellor fresh off a different scandal?

Instead of an earlier public announcement helping the college, the institutional penchant for secrecy meant another search process and a delay of months in picking a new PCC head.

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have your say   

3 comments on this story

Aug 10, 2017, 7:16 pm
-0 +2

No, TUSD Insider, you commented on an analysis piece, rather than this report. Your comment was not removed.


Aug 10, 2017, 4:36 pm
-1 +0

my last comment was removed

Dylan talks a good line about transparency but….

There are two candidates from the slithering Sanchez snake inhabited green slime era; they are Marie Marine and Stephen Trejo.  She did little to support principals after she was promoted to a position that was meant to do just that. Trejo ran a school. That is all he did. He was hailed by TUSD bureaucrats for running it well and raising achievement. That is what he was supposed to do but it was seen as extraordinary.

Trujillo has told principals that they have not met up to professional expectations and he has rattled several cages since he took over his post.  By rattled, I mean is now holding folks accountable. Something very foreign to TUSD for the last 4 years. Trujillo is not from Tucson or the camp of Grijalva-ites. He is neither part of the Stegeman scheme-tank. The Kentucky person should be screened out NOW to avoid further embarrassment. She was probably screened in by Stegeman to make Trejo look stronger. He is just that deviant. 
And as for your very immediate posting of this story, seems to me you had insider scoop (thanks Kristel) in violation of Open Meeting Law. Dylan, it is OK but don’t try to cover your tracks by steaming over the “untimely” release of information from TUSD.
Hey, how come you have not covered the fact that Stephanie Boe resigned?

Each candidate could get glowing reviews from their “friends”- which are biased. Take a look at what has been reported about Hargens in detail and it should sober the drunkest of person into the fact that she is not right for TUSD. Maybe “good” just is not good enough!

Aug 10, 2017, 1:35 pm
-1 +0

Although surrounded by controversy in Jefferson County Public Schools mostly since the February 14 audit announcement, Dr. Donna Hargens is a strong superintendent.  She knows curriculum and instruction.  She understands teachers and their negotiating units.  She knows what it will take to get all students college and career ready.  In a large, growing urban district that has been entrenched in bureaucracy for awhile before she arrived, Dr. Hargens survived six years.  She not only survived but made strides.  That is pretty much unheard of these days. Perfect? No.  Good? Yes.  The JCPS board leadership changed this year.  The state governorship moved in an oppositional direction to the former governor regarding education.  Dr. Hargens still led her Board through an amazing strategic process.  Morale in many school districts in the US at this time isn’t the best ever and has little to do with superintendents.  In this time of national legislative uncertainty schools and districts need leaders.  I’ve worked in my 45 public ed years in 3 states with dozens of superintendents and would count Dr. Hargens in the top 10 for understanding, grace under fire and the ability to get the job done.  Controversy? Absolutely but could she make a difference for Tuscon students and the community?  You bet! I hope she gets the chance. Best wishes.

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Who will be in the TUSD driver's seat next month?

Community Q&A

The finalists for TUSD superintendent will be interviewed by the Governing Board, meet with employee groups and hold question-and-answer sessions with community members next week. One finalist per day will be reviewed Monday through Thursday. The public community visits are tentatively set for 7-9 p.m. in the auditorium of Catalina High School each day, with Thursday's meeting held at Sahuaro High School instead.

Stephen Trejo (resume)

  • Scheduled Visit: Monday, August 14
  • Forum: 7 p.m.- 9 p.m. at Catalina High School Auditorium, 3645 E. Pima St.

Maria Marin (resume)

  • Scheduled Visit: Tuesday, August 15
  • Forum: 7 p.m.- 9 p.m. at Catalina

Gabriel Trujillo (resume)

  • Scheduled Visit: Wednesday, August 16
  • Forum: 7 p.m.- 9 p.m. at Catalina

Donna Hargens (resume)

  • Scheduled Visit: Thursday, August 17
  • Forum: 7 p.m.- 9 p.m. at Sahuaro High School Auditorium, 545 N. Camino Seco