It’s official: 35-year-old Elizabeth Celania-Fagan, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District for the past 21 months, will take over leadership of the Douglas County School District on July 1, board members decided Tuesday night.
But she wasn’t there to accept the job. She gave birth to her second child on March 19, the same day she was named the sole finalist for the Douglas County position, and she is on maternity leave.
Fagen got a unanimous show of support from the school board. That’s something she lacked when she took over the troubled Tucson schools in 2008. At that time, she was hired on a 3-2 vote, with skeptics worried that she lacked the experience to run a large district. In 2008, she was still in her first year as assistant superintendent of the Des Moines, Iowa, schools, a district half the size of Tucson.
But by all accounts, Fagen quickly won over most of her critics.
“Her obvious impact, her energy, her attention to accountability – that was completely evident throughout the entire system,” said Cliff Stahl, one of two board members to visit the Tucson school district. “It was quite a statement. It wasn’t the easiest thing to meet with them, because they’re losing their superintendent, and their only concern was that she was leaving. That’s what they’re upset about, across the board. Without exception, every group was very respectful, very complimentary of Dr. Fagen’s obvious abilities.”
The Douglas County board voted 6-0 in support of Fagen; the seven-member board currently has a vacancy.
Board member Dan Gerken, who also visited Tucson, agreed with Stahl. “I came away with increased confidence that we made the right choice,” he said. “I met with a state representative, the president of the University of Arizona, a number of business leaders. It was 99.6 percent positive. I don’t know how it could get much better.”
The two school districts, Tucson and Douglas County, are roughly comparable in size: around 56,000 students. But in most other respects, they couldn’t be more different.
Douglas County is an affluent area and its schools are among the highest-performing in the state. Tucson Unified School District, by contrast, serves a high-poverty, high-minority population, with all the attendant challenges.
And although Colorado school districts are facing enormous budgetary problems – and Douglas County is no exception – Arizona’s funding of its schools makes Colorado look flush by comparison. Per pupil funding in the TUSD is just $3,300 per student – less than half the funding ratio in Douglas County.
“It puts our own plight in perspective here,” said Gerken.
In fact, the perpetual school funding difficulties in Arizona may well have contributed to Fagen’s decision to leave that state.
“We found her to be very bright, very talented,” said Billie Stanton, managing editor of the Montrose Daily Press, but previously the opinion page editor of the now-defunct Tucson Citizen, which ceased publication last May. “But I think one bit of research she didn’t do before she came was how viciously the legislature treats school funding in Arizona. All Arizona schools are horribly under-funded, and Tucson is a tough district to be in. I can see how Douglas County would be very appealing to her.”
Fagen, a one-time pre-med major at the University of Iowa, has a bachelor’s degree in science education from William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa. She received a master’s degree and a doctorate in education leadership from Drake University in Des Moines.
She taught high school science for several years in Iowa. She also served as a high school principal and as an administrator for the Des Moines Independent School District. She was named associate superintendent there in July 2007 and served a year before taking the Tucson appointment.
Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, said Fagen’s quick job-hopping doesn’t worry her. “You hear the same thing about new teachers not having enough experience but that’s not necessarily a negative,” Smith said. “Experience doesn’t always predict ability. So no, I’m not concerned about her lack of experience in Tucson or before that in Des Moines. I think she has the ability to be very successful in Douglas County.”
Gerken said that Fagen “hit a home run” in each of the three areas the board members determined were most important in their new superintendent: being passionate about the success of all children; being supportive of school choice; and commitment to performance-based pay.
Look for more changes in Douglas County leadership in coming months. Board vice president Ryan Stuart announced his resignation last month. Formerly a deputy district attorney, Stuart has been sworn in as District Court Magistrate in the First Judicial District, and judicial officers are prohibited from serving on an elected government board. The school board will be looking for candidates to fill Stuart’s unexpired term.
Also leaving will be Steve Herzog, the one-time chief operating officer for the school district. He has served as interim superintendent since October, when former superintendent Jim Christiansen stepped down.