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TUSD taps Trujillo as new superintendent

Tucson's largest school district has a new leader — interim Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo was named as a longterm head of the Tucson Unified School District by the Governing Board on Tuesday night on a 4-1 vote.

Trujillo, picked as the interim chief of TUSD in March after the previous superintendent was pushed out, will be paid a base salary of $180,000 to $230,000 after a contract is negotiated and approved by the board.

Trujillo was one of four candidates who were named as finalists earlier this month. He let out a visible sigh of relief and rocked back in his chair on the dais as the selection was announced by the board.

"That was relief," he acknowledged after the meeting. "Now I can really dig in ... I can now look long-term."

TUSD has about 47,000 students.

Trujillo, who had worked for TUSD as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction since just last September, beat out ex-TUSD principal Stephen Trejo, now working for a chain of Phoenix charter school; district elementary director Maria Marin; 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.

Over the objections of Boardmember Mark Stegeman, the rest of the board voted to abandon a secretive process that had been laid out: they were to have voted for a final choice identified only by a letter, and negotiate a contract without disclosing the identity of the choice to the public.

"I just couldn't see any reason to do it that way," said Board Chairman Michael Hicks.

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In picking the final four candidates, the board had voted for them by identifying letters only — B, G, P and W — and only released the names later. That prompted criticism from this reporter and other observers, who noted that the controversial background of a candidate like Hargens would've been more readily apparent prior to naming her a finalist with a more transparent public process.

Stegeman said he voted against naming Trujillo because of his concerns about the process. He noted that he hasn't been a "yes" vote for any superintendent hiring decision during his tenure on the board (he was among those who unanimously voted to hire John Pedicone in 2010) . Stegeman did say that he would likely vote in favor of the contract to be worked out with Trujillo, "if it's what I expect it will be."

Trujillo has been paid a prorated salary of $200,000 to serve as the interim superintendent after the contentious ouster of H.T. Sanchez.

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.

He was picked as the interim district leader after the board's first choice for a temporary superintendent backed out after TucsonSentinel.com reported on process issues with her hiring.

In March, he demonstrated his eagerness to get to work by immediately taking to the dais during the meeting, despite not yet being on the clock as superintendent. Tuesday, he was again eager to tackle the job, discussing the ability to budget and plan on a longer-term basis, rather than just working "agenda-to-agenda" with the board.

"I think he can do the job," Hicks said. "The community likes him."

Trujillo has said that his immediate focus will be on retaining and recruiting students, and has spoken passionately about the importance of reading skills and literacy at all grade levels and across subjects.

"Customer service" is a phrase that frequently pops up in his comments, and he has said he'll work to increase the transparency of the district's operations and make high-level administrators be more directly available to teachers, school principals and staff.

Previous administrations have been accused of withholding information — not just from the press but from certain Governing Board members, and teachers and staff — and failing to efficiently deal with basic tasks such as acknowledging job applications, Trujillo said.

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During their public Q&A sessions, the other candidates spent much of their time talking about management theories they'd learned from business books, displaying their connections to the district by giving shout-outs to colleagues and mentors, glossing over issues such as the district's budgeting priorities and lingering desegregation court order, and, in Hargens' case, becoming defensive about the allegations of mismanagement in her prior district without directly addressing the issues raised.

Trujillo, given a bit of a head start in creating a track record with his interim post, discussed the reorganization he has been pushing for, and — while he avoided specifics when discussing long-standing controversies such as deseg — he consistently brought his answers around to discussing teachers and students in classrooms.

Sanchez ousted in February

Four years ago, the board announced H.T. Sanchez as their choice, and then took 10 days to negotiate a contract.

Sanchez stepped down on Feb. 28, with the split board looking to push him out.

He left with an agreement that would pay him $200,000 to walk away from the district — and binds board members with confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses.

The board voted 3-2 that night to accept Sanchez's resignation and approve a separation agreement, that district officials attempted to delay releasing to the public. He had 16 months to run on his contract, which paid him a base salary of $270,000.

Sanchez 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.

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

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.

Like the superintendents before him, Sanchez's tenure was marked by controversies over the district's four-decade-old desegregation plan, budget challenges and declining enrollment. Unlike the ethnic studies issue that stirred passions under Pedicone, there wasn't a single flash point for those who want Sanchez removed from his post. Some teachers claimed misappropriation of Prop. 301 funds that were supposed to find their way to the classroom, and other opponents pointed to the recent loss of desegregation magnet status at a number of schools.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Trujillo, speaking at one of a series of public forums for superintendent candidates.