May 24, 2006 - Denny Dearden a few months ago began a meeting with a fake set of rotten-yellow, crooked teeth in his mouth, slurring his speech.

Everyone cracked up.

The first-year Marana school district superintendent keeps the teeth in his desk drawer and first used them in the presence of dozens of suit-and-tie-clad, stern-faced school officials back East.

"They were all very serious, and I just thought some of the stuff they were saying was hilarious," he said. "If you can't have fun doing your job, then why do it?"

From his first day on the job, Dearden's humor helped to ease tensions throughout the Marana district, employees said.

"There were some wounds that needed some healing," Dearden said.

The district hired Dearden last summer after a year-long search for a superintendent. He immediately brought about change.

The superintendent formed a 13-member leadership team consisting of department heads, principals and administrators to meet once a week. The group discusses everything from contract negotiations to the effectiveness of school programs.

"Any of us can put something on the agenda," said Estes Elementary School Principal Rocky Sugameli, a member of the team. "Denny gets upset if people don't speak up about an issue."

Anyone can attend the meetings - other principals, teachers, parents and even students.

One rule, though.

"No whining," Dearden said.

"I don't like it when people bring up a problem and just dump it on people. They have to be able to talk about it and offer solutions. It's not about pointing fingers, it's about solving problems."

Even during the most tense debates, Dearden never loses his comedic touch. Before the May 18 leadership meeting began, the superintendent had colleagues laughing for several minutes with one of his stories.

"We can talk about some really tough issues, and he never loses his balance or sense of humor," Sugameli said.

Dearden's May 5 speech to the staff at Marana Middle School seemed like a stand-up routine with near-perfect delivery on each punch line.

A week later during a district board meeting, the room went black. When the lights came on, Dearden had his glasses off, rubbing his eyes.

"Oh thank God," he told the crowd, taking a deep breath. "I thought I went blind for a second."

Former Superintendent Rick Lesko left in July 2004 amid gossip and contention, seemingly forced out by a previous incarnation of the district's governing board. Members held several private meetings leading up to the popular Lesko's departure.

The mystery fuelled a rumor mill that divided the district, employees said.

The "year in limbo" that followed found the district lumbering through a school year with an interim boss, searching for its next leader.

Dearden arrived last July from Fairfax, Va., where he served as an assistant superintendent for two years, overseeing almost 20,000 students at 22 schools. He previously worked for 30 years in Colorado and his home state of Iowa as a teacher, coach, principal and assistant superintendent.

In May 2005, Dearden signed a two-year contract with the district for $115,000 in annual salary and an extensive fringe benefits package.

Dearden and his wife Deanna Hernandez-Dearden have three adopted children - two sons and 1-year-old daughter Annalee, whom the couple adopted from a Russian orphanage last fall.

Dearden grew up poor in Iowa, expecting to drop out of school until he picked up a basketball. As a guard, he led his high school team in scoring. He did the same in college, earning All-Conference honors for the 1973-74 season.

He went on to coach his alma-mater Simpson College for several seasons. In the 1990s, Dearden took a Grand Junction, Colo., high school team from a record of 5-14 to No. 1 in the state. It took only a year.

He plans to do the same with Marana's school district, where Dearden has implemented a strategic planning process dubbed "Roadmap to Renewed Excellence."

Seventy people from administrators down to parents developed six priorities and 25 goals for the district. Dearden then formed priority teams, led by principals and other staff.

These teams have almost completed their first phase of work.

"Denny has a very clear vision for what he wants to see for Marana school district," said Tortolita Middle School Principal Jane D'Amore, who heads the "Safe and Healthy Environments" priority team.

"He's shown nothing but an articulate, thoughtful attitude when making tough decisions."

Dearden seeks advice from staff at every level, district employees said.

Marana Unified School District includes 17 schools, 1,800 employees and more than 13,000 students. The superintendent has spoken at all 17 schools, many of them twice.

He has supported smaller-learning communities at the district's two high schools. The small, career-oriented programs have been partly implemented at Marana High School. Mountain View High School will begin its similar "gateway" communities next fall, also Marana High School's first year of full implementation for the program.

Mountain View Principal Jill Atlas presented the "Gateways to the Future" plan at a recent district board meeting. The plan will feature seven areas of concentration similar to college majors, including health and wellness, business and finance and law and human services. The program will allow students to shadow professionals and even work internships.

Smaller-learning communities can begin earlier than high school, Dearden said.

To emphasize the "starting early" philosophy, Dearden created cluster groups for both high schools, mostly separated by Interstate 10. Elementary and middle schools that feed into each high school form the two clusters.

Administrators and staff hold cluster meetings to discuss student transition from elementary to middle to high school.

Human Resources Director Janice Reyher remembers the first time Dearden stopped by her staff's office on Grier Road to talk about his plans for the district.

"He said, 'The bus is leaving, ladies. You need to get on the bus, or we'll leave you at the station.'"

Before Dearden's hire, the human resources department hired a firm to conduct an audit into staff responsibilities and organization. The audit revealed confusion and uncertainty among the department's nine employees.

"We knew we had problems, but no one wanted to take the hit to make the changes," Reyher said. "Then Denny came in and said, 'We have to change.' The audit put us ahead of the curve for that."

Before the audit, job descriptions defined no specific task and employees struggled to keep up with varying duties. Reyher had no job description. Some of her staff dealt with personnel issues and some worked on payroll. When personnel had downtime, payroll seemed overworked.

"We thought if everyone did a little of everything, the work would balance out," Reyher said. "Of course, that didn't work."

Two of Reyher's staffers this year received an "Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award," a recognition Dearden began for employees who went to extremes for the district.

"We had nothing like that before," Reyher said. "We'd have end-of-the-year awards for teachers, but that's about it."

Last fall, Reyher held a district-wide secretaries meeting. It marked the first meeting in two years for many of them.

While Dearden has addressed some problems, others linger, like low morale and turmoil in the transportation department.

"That's a national dilemma," Dearden said. "Is there a solution out there? It's something we'll have to continue to focus on."

The district needs to "address the brutal facts" to become a great school district, he added.

A week into Dearden's job, bus drivers protested a proposed reorganization of the transportation department by Director Don Powers.

Many drivers felt ignored.

The reorganization consolidated and changed bus routes, which doubled and tripled some driver workloads.

"It's hard to get motivated about work right now," driver Kim Taylore said. "I don't even make $15,000 a year. I can't support myself and my family on that."

She might quit her job before next school year.

"All districts have suffered with recruiting and retaining bus drivers," Powers said. "We ran short for quite some time."

The district employs 100 daily route bus drivers and 35 bus attendants. The district now has eight relief drivers for when others cannot work, he added.

Despite the problems, "(Dearden) has been effective on helping people concentrate on getting our kids to school safely," Powers said.

District board member Bill Kuhn thinks Dearden's "blueprint for the future" has reunited the district. Before, the district "had a strategic plan, but the AIMS was the be all and end all. Our goal was how to get students to pass AIMS," Kuhn said.

"I'm very pleased with his first year. He brought in a fresh insight from his years in Virginia."

Some of Dearden's old colleagues will visit Marana for the district's leadership academy on June 6 and 7, when officials from Fairfax County Public Schools will offer suggestions on a plan for Marana schools.

Dearden wants to examine all educational programs used in the district, from reading to instruction. Those that work will stay; the others will go.

"Sometimes we focus too much on a program and not enough on people," Dearden said. "We need to really find out which programs are working for the kids and which ones aren't. We're putting more programs on people's plates and not taking any off. Let's just do a few things very, very well."

The district soon will beef up its research effort with a research coordinator to compile and decipher statistics.

This year, the district operated on $70.5 million. In fiscal 2006-2007, the budget will grow to slightly more than $72 million, Finance Director Dan Contorno estimated.

In November, voters will decide whether the district should join others to form a Joint Technology Education District, a move that would bring thousands of dollars more to Marana's high schools and vocational programs.

Since his hiring, Dearden has gone to dozens of JTED meetings and touted the potential district to board members.

Dearden has kept busy. The Oro Valley resident hustles from award ceremonies to school staff meetings to regional events. This month, he even donned a straw hat and lei while attending a Luau celebration with third-graders at Desert Winds Elementary School.

His persistence has paid off, according to his colleagues.

The next two years will bring two new elementary schools to the district - one in Continental Reserve this fall and another in 2008. The schools will relieve the increasing populations of Coyote Trail and Twin Peaks elementary schools.

"I'm extremely excited about what's happening," Reyher said. "I know you have to move slow to move forward, but I sure would like to put on some roller skates and move forward fast."

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