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TUSD boss: You’ll see a new school district

Celania-Fagen ‘re-culturing’ her executive team

TUSD Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen visits Rosalie Perales' class of first- and second-graders at Miles Exploratory Learning Center. MIles was the 28th of 105 schools Fagen plans on visiting.

TUSD Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen visits Rosalie Perales' class of first- and second-graders at Miles Exploratory Learning Center. MIles was the 28th of 105 schools Fagen plans on visiting.

Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who came to the Tucson Unified School District on July 1 as its new leader, said she found a place that was “playing not to lose instead of playing to win.”

After completing her first 100 days at the helm of the second largest district in Arizona this week, the 34-year-old superintendent said she is trying to make changes to a “highly political and very reactive district.”

And she has “learned a great deal more about where we are and where we need to be.”

Fagen, who said she didn’t have the luxury of having lots of time, is just now learning about TUSD, meeting people, forming relationships and “building the case for change.”

She is “re-culturing,” as she likes to call it: Molding her executive team “to move to a proactive, system-smart, customer friendly, progressive and accountable organization.”

She is trying to move the district “from a culture of compliance to opportunity, empowerment and accountability.”

And, she said, she is moving leadership in the district to get it “up to speed on 21st-century education” and introducing different ways “to inspire them (the leaders) to transform with our support.”

“I believe I have worked to start a conversation on the next 50 to 100 years of ‘school’ and why it should be different,” she said. “I think our community has come a long way in understanding digital native (her term for today’s students who are growing up in the digital age) students and 21st-century outcomes.”

Those she has talked to from various constituencies in the community have welcomed Fagen for her “progressive ideas” and “ability to listen.”

Business officials hope she will be the answer to filling the work force with capable workers.

Laura Shaw, vice president of investor relations and marketing for Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc., said, “She is offering the changes needed to achieve a 21st-century work force” and understands why new plans are needed to engage different types of students. “She is a visionary and is generating feedback from business and education communities,” Shaw said.

Steve Courter, president of the Tucson Education Association, TUSD’s teachers union, also praised Fagen.

“There is far more communication than we have ever experienced and I’ve been amazed at how many employees have had time with her to explain their individual situations,” he said.

Courter said he’s also hearing teachers echo some Fagen-speak.

“I hear some teachers talking about ‘digital natives,’ so they are listening,” he said.

The warm welcome does not mean problems the district faced as Fagen was interviewing for the job last spring have disappeared.

Here are her responses to questions about some of those issues.

School closures

Q: You’ve said it’s not completely up to you, but you don’t plan to close any schools next year?

A: That is right. I’d like to attempt to fill our schools. If we are unable to do this, I feel that it is important that we have a 10-year facility plan that phases out schools that have been completely unsuccessful in attracting students. Part of that plan must paint a picture of a future that our families can be excited about. They must know they are trading X for Y and Y must be something that we are excited about. All of that said, there is not much savings (proportionally speaking) in closing a few elementary schools. There is probably not a superintendent who would consider doing it for less than 1 percent of their budget. It is terribly divisive and harmful to a district. It should only be done as part of a long-term plan that has been collaboratively developed.

Balancing the budget

Q: Unlike last year, how can TUSD not expect to be in the hole $5 million to $15 million for next year’s budget?

A: Currently we are in good shape with regard to our budget. This time last year, we were freezing open positions and discretionary budgets. This year, we are returning dollars to schools. We projected the student loss we experienced and we budgeted accordingly. Our finance department has done a great job getting us back where we need to be under the current circumstances.

Employee raises

Q: No one in TUSD got raises this year. Do you plan to give raises next year?

A: This is a priority. We know that our district is only as good as the quality of the employees we can attract and retain. We hate that we couldn’t give a raise this past year. We don’t want to do that again.


Q: How do you plan to build community trust in TUSD?

A: You have to earn trust and you earn it through actions. It will take us some time, but I believe this community will see that we are a new TUSD.

Charter schools

Q: How do you deal with TUSD students leaving to attend charter schools?

A: We need to be more aggressive about this than we have been in the past. Our schools offer great things and they are going to offer more great things and we are going to really be overt about it. We are talking about fairs to show our parents and our community all of the wonderful things we offer. We are talking about a checklist for parents for things to look for in their schools. We offer huge playgrounds, hot lunch programs, transportation, highly qualified teachers and student-friendly libraries – these are just five of many things that parents who choose charter schools must give up. I plan to spend some time helping parents make great choices for their children and showing them all of the wonderful opportunities that exist here.

Q: What are your hopes for your first year here?

A: To begin to see excited and empowered schools create the kind of learning environments that get staff excited to come to work each day and that help each student love learning and therefore put them on a pathway to success; to see a genuine change in customer service; to begin to see excellence in the details; to be part of an executive team that models empowerment, accountability, excellence in customer service and movement toward 21st-century schools.

Q: How are you going to deal with schools that you would like to see making more progress?

A: We are going to make expectations clear, provide support and hold people accountable for those expectations.

TUSD Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen meets with kindergartners Isabella Gerhart (left) and Kira Stagg, both 5, at Miles Exploratory Learning Center.

TUSD Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen meets with kindergartners Isabella Gerhart (left) and Kira Stagg, both 5, at Miles Exploratory Learning Center.


Elizabeth Celania-Fagen

• Current position: Superintendent of Tucson Unified School District.

• Previous position: Associate superintendent, Des Moines Independent School District

• Education: Doctorate in educational leadership

• Past experience: Celania-Fagen led the professional development of 23 high-level school administrators in Des Moines. She also worked on the development of plans for the creation of 21st-century schools. She worked on analyzing high school curriculum programs and chaired a district council, which produced the curriculum handbook. During her tenure as executive director of high school programs and academic achievement in Des Moines, she coordinated community college dual-credit programs.


On the Web

Tucson Unified School District Web site:




• Schools: 121 traditional and alternative schools

• Students: 57,548

• Employees: 9,000-10,000

• Budget: $578 million

• Area: More than 200 square miles

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