March 2, 2005 - With anticipations hanging high, three finalists are vying for Marana Unified School District's top spot this week as they visit the district in hopes of becoming its next superintendent.

Board members are expected to choose which of the three candidates is the best fit for the district March 8. All three candidates have varying styles of leadership and experiences in education.

Denny Dearden was the first to visit MUSD on Feb. 28. He will be followed by Guillermo Zamudio on March 2, and Vivian Egbert on March 3.

All visits include a 3 p.m. public reception at Marana Middle School, 11279 W. Grier Road, after which board members will get their crack at the finalists.

The district's governing board approved the final list of candidates Feb. 7, following recommendations brought by search consultant Bob Hendricks, former Flowing Wells superintendent.

An 11-member community panel spent long hours sifting through application packets of the 13 who applied for the position in January. During a Jan. 29 blind screening, candidates were reviewed by the committee based only on their qualifications.

Board President Bill Kuhn said the board will be looking at candidate's past management styles, how they solve problems, as well as why they left their previous positions.

Personally, Kuhn said, he wants somebody who believes in team building and collaboration.

"I want somebody who doesn't do everything top-down," he said. "I want somebody who believes in decisions based on input from everybody."

Kuhn said he also wants someone with a good track record of managing district money, and preferably someone with good people skills.

"I want someone who can talk to people and convey the need for them to do something to accomplish a certain goal," he said.

The finalists chosen all had prior experience as a superintendent, which was listed as "preferred," but not an absolute requirement, Hendricks said. The position will pay somewhere in the ballpark of $110,000 beginning July 1, 2005.

The EXPLORER took time last week to interview and compile profiles of all three candidates. The profiles of the three finalists are appended below.

A team approach

Most who have worked alongside Denny Dearden are quick to acknowledge his down-to-Earth personality, specifically his innate sense of humor. But they're also certain he's destined to be a school superintendent.

Dearden, one of three finalists in the Marana Unified School District's superintendent search, was the first to visit and interview with the school district's board members Feb. 28. The other two candidates will visit separately March 2 and 3, with public receptions at 3 p.m. at Marana Middle School.

Dearden currently is assistant superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Va., where he oversees a cluster of 22 schools and nearly 20,000 students.

If selected to lead Marana's school district, Dearden said he'll bring his team approach to school leadership, which is reflective of the two decades he spent as a basketball coach.

"The thing that coaching taught me is you can't excel without creating a team," he said. "You've got to have everybody playing their role."

Dearden rallied his staff to make learning a top priority when he stepped into his first principal role at a troubled Mt. Garfield Middle School in Grand Junction, Colo., in 1996. In a short time, he took a gang-infested environment where police presence was common and turned it into a learning-focused campus, he said.

He led the school for three years and started a program sponsored by the state highway patrol, which eventually resulted in a drop in drug-related calls to law enforcement from 34 to zero in one year.

Dearden was honored in 2000 by the Gang Resistance Education And Training program as national principal of the year for his dedication.

"We had a problem with those types of things, and so I brought in the GREAT program, which proved to be very effective," he said.

School violence was an issue that hit close to home for Colorado principals in 1999, when the infamous Columbine shooting occurred. Dearden vividly remembers, that April day, listening to the live broadcasts from a radio in his office.

"I remember hearing shots going off as they were on the scene. It certainly set the tone around the nation and specifically in Colorado," he said. "That really affected me because I had friends that I had worked with that were at Columbine and it was just a devastating thing for everybody."

Later that year, Dearden became principal of a high school in Grand Junction, where he stayed until 2003 before taking his current position in Virginia.

He led an underachieving Central High School with 1,600 students to high achievement in less than three years, and turned an unruly staff into a cohesive, student-focused group of educators, he said.

Graduation rates improved from 79 percent to 90.2 percent, the highest among four high schools in the district. Dearden also helped lower the dropout rate to 3.2 percent, improved state assessment scores and improved daily attendance from 88 to 96 percent by instituting strict policies.

But the school's success was a result neither of any program nor of an abundance of resources, Dearden said. Instead, it resulted from a focus on high expectations and good leadership.

"I try to keep things fairly simple," he said. "Things don't have to be complicated, but you've got to have a dogged determination to get things done."

Cindy Granum, an assistant principal at Central High School, described Dearden as a great motivator with a sense of humor that always kept morale high.

"He is one of the greatest. He started this motto that whatever is best for kids is what we're going to do," she said.

"He has a lot of humor," she added. "That's what we really loved about him - we were always laughing."

Rudy Malesich, executive director of the Mesa County Valley School District, said Dearden was one of 16 principals who worked under him in Grand Junction.

"He is one of the finest, most-outstanding principals I have ever had the opportunity to work with," he said. "You will be hard-pressed to find someone that knows more about leading instruction, dealing with people and the overall general operation of a school district."

Dearden said his diverse experiences and his ability to step into any situation and excel are some of his greatest strengths. He easily could have played out the rest of his career in Grand Junction, he said, but seeking a new challenge led him to Fairfax County.

"I've never ran away from challenges," he said. "I've always put myself in difficult situations. And wherever I've left, I like to say I've left it in much better shape."

Fairfax County Public Schools, the country's 12th largest school district, has a diverse population of more than 166,000 students from more than 150 nations, speaking more than 100 languages.

Dearden oversees a cluster of 22 schools on the geographical outskirts of Washington, D.C. Because of their location, the schools are constantly under the spotlight and political pressure of the nation's capital, he said.

Brad Draeger, Fairfax County's deputy superintendent, said Dearden has managed to do what some have a hard time doing in a large, diverse district: fit in.

"Fairfax County is a hard place to fit into from the outside and he has just fit in very well," he said. "I think he really is probably destined to be a superintendent somewhere in the United States."

The Marana school district will offer its new superintendent a salary in the ballpark of $110,000, said Bob Hendricks, the district's search consultant. Dearden currently has a salary of $121,841 with full benefits and a $610 monthly vehicle allowance.

Dearden said he enjoys working in one of the nation's premiere school districts, but he's enticed by the opportunity to lead in Marana. He said he'll be interviewing to see if the district is a good fit for him, but he isn't looking for any other jobs right now.

"I'm real particular with what I'm going after because I'm in a great area," he said. "But it's always nice to have your own district that you can lead the helm of."

Dearden and his wife, Deanna Hernandez, have two adopted sons, ages 16 and 20, and are considering adopting another child. Dearden said Marana is in an area of the country where the family eventually would like to live.

Dearden spent the bulk of his career in Iowa and Colorado after graduating from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, with a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1974. He earned a master's degree in education from Iowa's Drake University in 1980.

He began his career in 1974 as a social studies teacher and basketball coach in the Des Moines Public School District. He then went on to serve as a special education teacher and coach at various schools in Iowa. Starting in 1982, he spent three years as the men's head basketball coach at Simpson College. In 1985, he moved to Littleton, Colo., where he was a special education teacher and basketball coach for Heritage High School. Moving on to Grand Junction, he was a special education teacher from 1987 to 1988 at Orchard Mesa Middle School before becoming a social studies teacher and head basketball coach at Grand Junction High School.

In 1993, he became the high school's activities director, and he later became assistant principal.

Yuma district troubles

When Vivian Egbert left the helm of her former school district in Yuma seven months ago, some cried tears and others cheered happily.

Some described her as a dedicated leader in her four years as superintendent of Yuma Elementary School District 1, while others said she abused her power and vindictively tried to run over anyone who stood in her way.

"It's like they're talking about two completely different people," said Bob Hendricks, the search consultant who has been reviewing the backgrounds of the three finalists for Marana Unified School District's superintendent position.

Board members will select a new superintendent March 8 after interviewing Egbert and two other candidates this week. Egbert will meet with members of the community during a public reception at 3 p.m. March 3 at Marana Middle School, 11279 W. Grier Road.

After a year of heated controversy that left Yuma Elementary School District 1 heavily divided - even visibly to the point that supporters of Egbert wore red dresses to board meetings - Egbert agreed to resign last August, collecting a severance package of $155,805 that includes a full payout of her 2004-05 base salary and the monetary value for benefits she would have received this year.

Since then, Egbert has moved back to Tucson where she works as a special projects consultant for Title I School Improvement in the Tucson Unified School District, providing technical assistance to schools identified as needing additional academic support.

Egbert previously worked in Tucson, under the name "Candy," as principal of Miles Exploratory Learning Center from 1993 to 1998. Her husband, Pat, is a Tucson attorney.

Since leaving Yuma, Egbert has been searching for the opportunity to lead another district. She recently was one of six finalists for a superintendent position at Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District, but officials passed on hiring her.

Hendricks said Egbert's past won't be a surprise to Marana school district board members, who already were presented an accurate portrayal of all candidates.

"I feel comfortable that the profile I presented of each of the candidates to the board was representative of the strengths and potential liabilities of each candidate," he said. "My experience in searches is that most candidates come with some baggage."

Egbert admits she has some controversy behind her, but she said she never made any regrettable decisions. She had a mission focused on student achievement and didn't let a few voices of opposition sidetrack her, she said.

"I don't seek controversy, I seek consensus," she said. "I am collaborative in problem solving, but I am unwavering in my priorities for students and families in the district."

Many parents and teachers reacted angrily when Egbert transferred a Fourth Avenue Middle School principal to another school in the weeks before the 2003-04 school year.

Kathryn Crockett, the former principal, has since filed a lawsuit against Egbert and has 13 Yuma teachers supporting her, claiming Egbert's actions were unfair. Crockett is now principal of Pister Middle School in Tucson.

"There's no question there were some teachers upset, but I had worked with the situation where Fourth Avenue was an underperforming school and student achievement results were dramatically low," Egbert said.

The fact that the school no longer is listed by the state as underperforming, Egbert said, is proof that she made the right choice, even if it wasn't a popular one.

"I don't strive to make people unhappy, but I keep the top priority what's best for the students and the school and I believe the results are nothing short of spectacular," she said.

Valerie Robinson is one of 13 teachers who filed grievances against Egbert for her actions, and is among several reprimanded for speaking out against her at board meetings.

"She split District One right down into many different factions," Robinson said. "I think it's going to take several years to recover from what she did. It cost the district many great teachers."

Egbert's former office is being investigated by state auditors for a possible mismanagement of funds. The Arizona Auditor General's office is conducting a performance audit, with results expected to be released this school year.

In a separate report released in August, state officials found that the district had not demonstrated responsible stewardship of more than $74 million in taxpayer dollars received for the 2002-03 school year.

For the fourth consecutive year, the district's cash balances at year-end did not match county treasurer records, according to the Auditor General's report. The district was cited for incompliance and "significant deficiencies in internal controls."

The district did not follow competitive purchasing requirements and did not ensure that it received the best value for the public money it spent, stated the report, which also said student activities money was at risk of misuse.

Gary Wright, a retired Yuma middle school teacher, helped initiate the investigations after fighting to obtain district financial records, which he took the Auditor General's office.

He said he personally was alarmed that Egbert contracted consultant Wilda Storm, paying her $975 a day to teach Yuma teachers in a literacy workshop called "Write up a Storm." He didn't think that was an efficient use of money.

"She won the lottery when she got that contract signed," Wright said.

District records indicate Storm earned $112,407 for the 2002-03 fiscal year and $111,405 for 2003-04 for what was contracted to be 104 days of work each year. She also had an apartment provided to her through the district.

"I have never been outspoken about someone in education, but this woman is a disaster," Wright said. "If she ever got around money, or in a school district again, it would be disastrous."

Egbert said she contracted for Storm's services based on input from community and staff members, who cited student literacy as a priority. She said Storm was well-qualified and worth every penny of her contract, and the gains in student achievement were evidence that the program was effective.

Teri Brooks, president of the Yuma Elementary Education Association, said her group of about 300 teachers butted heads with Egbert at times.

The association filed grievances about unfair hiring practices in 2001 when Egbert brought the focus of a literacy program to the district, an action that Brooks said disenfranchised many teachers whose teaching styles weren't compatible.

During Egbert's tenure as superintendent, such programs attracted increased funding while teachers continued to see low salaries, Brooks said. As a result, more than 100 teachers have fled the district each year since 2002, she said.

"We basically started losing them to other districts because our salaries didn't go up at the same rate," she said.

Egbert said she could not deny that her teachers did not get the salaries they deserved, but said she did what she could with the given resources.

But many say things are looking brighter under new superintendent Tom Rushin, who has pledged a 7.1 percent salary increase across the board.

"Since Mrs. Egbert, the morale in District 1 has improved 100-fold," said Jim Colby, a Yuma teacher of more than 30 years. "Teachers are no longer afraid to express their ideas openly."

Yuma's five-member governing board often was as divided when it came to supporting Egbert, whose continual proponents were board members Maureen Irr and Ray Corona - often the dissenters in many 3-2 votes.

Irr described Egbert as a highly intelligent and well-educated person with a strong background in school improvement and program planning.

"She's a tireless worker. She worked 24-7," Irr said. "She has a passion for student literacy to a fault, and she's willing to work with the community."

Irr has her own explanations for the division created over Egbert's leadership of the district.

"Very often, people just don't think they need change," she said. "However, when Vivian came into the district, 60 percent of our students weren't reading, and that has moved. Fewer kids are falling behind now."

Greg Wilkinson, president of the district's governing board, said he could not comment on Egbert because certain board members signed an agreement upon her resignation not to discuss her performance. Wilkinson was one of two board members who came on in 2002, signaling a change in the board majority that hired Egbert.

Juli Peach, principal of Alice Byrne Elementary School in Yuma, wrote in a letter of recommendation that "Mrs. Egbert's leadership has made me a better principal. Her passion and dedication to the education of children is something she demonstrates with every step she takes."

Peach wrote that Egbert's focus always was on students. "She has taken a district whose culture was status quo and used her expertise, courage, and tenacity to move us towards a better education for our children."

Judith Bobbitt, superintendent of Somerton School District 11, said in a letter of recommendation that she had the privilege of cooperating with Egbert and "she faced many challenges and adversities that would have driven a smaller person away early in the process."

In Yuma, Egbert oversaw a preschool-through-eighth-grade system with 17 schools and about 10,500 students, many of whom were migrants and speakers of English as a second language.

She succeeded in closing a nine-year Corrective Action Agreement with the Office of Civil Rights by starting programs to meet the needs of English language learners.

Before her superintendency, she worked alongside Superintendent David Gordon as an intern at Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento County, Calif., between 1999 and 2000. The 45,000-student district for kindergarten through 12th grade is composed of about 60 percent minority students and is in a diverse, growing district that has a combination of urban and rural aspects.

"She just did an outstanding job in my district. I assigned her a lot of duties that I would have assigned an assistant superintendent," Gordon said.

He said his district is growing at a rate of about 6 to 7 percent each year, so Egbert would be well-equipped to handle Marana's inevitable future growth.

Egbert has two master's degrees - one in educational leadership from University of Oregon and one in education from Harvard University with a concentration in urban superintendency, which she earned in 1999. She received her bachelor's degree in education from University of Arizona in 1972. Egbert served as principal of the Miles Exploratory Learning Center in Tucson from 1993 to 1998, and she taught math between 1984 and 1990 at Magee Middle School in Tucson. She was a coordinator for instructional technology training with the Tucson school district from 1990 to 1998, doubling as a math and technology resource teacher in 1990-91. She was named the 1989-90 mathematics teacher of the year by the Arizona Council of Engineering and Scientific Associations.

Egbert cites the student achievement she saw in Yuma as her most important professional accomplishment. In 2000, only two of five students were learning to read and write at state standards, and very few exceeded standards, she said. In four years, slightly less than three of five students were reading and writing at or above standards.

"I'm an excellent superintendent with good management skills, but I'm focused on student achievement and what's best for the community and children," she said. "I believe that's what Yuma wanted and what Yuma got."

Egbert also helped reduce the number of state-labeled underperforming schools from six to one in two years.

Ready for big district

Born in an adobe house in a small ranching community in Mexico, Guillermo Zamudio has lived a life that can best be described as a series of challenges he's continually overcome.

His next challenge, he hopes, involves leading the Marana Unified School District as its new superintendent.

Zamudio, superintendent of Fort Huachuca Accommodation School District, is one of three finalists interviewing for the spot this week. He will meet with members of the community during a public reception at 3 p.m. March 2 at Marana Middle School, 11279 W. Grier Road.

Board officials are expected to announce their final selection March 8.

Zamudio said he was 4 when his family immigrated to the United States under the "Braceros" government work program. He became a legal resident at age 5 and began kindergarten without speaking English.

His father, who had only a first-grade education, always stressed the importance of education to Zamudio and his other children, Zamudio recalled.

"He basically knew education would provide opportunities that he never had and allow our family to do better and progress in this country," he said.

Zamudio was 17 when his father went to work one day never to return home. He died as a result of a tractor accident - a tragedy that inspired Zamudio to further his own education.

Just last May, Zamudio accomplished his proudest achievement to date: getting his doctorate in education from the University of Arizona.

Now he seeks the challenge of leading a school district larger than the 1,260-student district, made up of two elementary schools and a middle school, that he currently oversees.

"I've always been, in my career, wanting to lead a district that was larger in size," he said. "It gives that opportunity, and it has some unique challenges that I would look forward to working on with growth."

Zamudio said he also has been selected to interview for another superintendent position in the Apache Junction School District.

Casey O'Brien, principal at Colonel Smith Middle School, said he's had the pleasure of working with Zamudio during the past seven years as a principal in two districts - St. David and, now, Fort Huachuca.

"Everything he does, it's always about the best interest of the kids, and that's continued here at Fort Huachuca," he said. "When he makes decisions, there's no doubt in my mind it's on the basis of what will serve our students."

O'Brien described Zamudio as a hands-on superintendent who makes visits to schools regularly and knows everyone on a first-name basis.

"He often refers to himself as someone who remembers what it's like to be in the classroom," O'Brien said. "Nobody here at my school, including myself, are happy to see him go."

Patti Hawker, a Colonel Smith Middle School teacher, said Zamudio always puts children first, and the Marana school district would be doing itself a great disservice not to hire him.

"He's perfect. He's just a remarkable, remarkable man," she said. "We're just so saddened to see him leave. He's just the best thing to ever happen to this district."

Hawker said Zamudio had a way of making everyone feel important.

"His rapport with the employees and the entire district is just amazing - from all the employees all the way up the ladder, all the way down," she said.

But there may be at least one person Zamudio doesn't see eye-to-eye with.

Zamudio works under County School Superintendent Trudy Berry, who serves as a one-person school board overseeing his district.

During the past several months, Berry has proposed both reassigning Zamudio and placing him on paid administrative leave. However, any actions that might have occurred have been tabled, postponed, or cancelled each time.

Zamudio said he made his decision a year ago to resign effective the end of June 2005, respectfully giving the district time to find a replacement. He suggested it was a difference of interests between him and Berry that led to his decision.

"I don't think it's a secret," he said. "I realize this governing structure limits my ability to lead in my capacity. On that note, I have had differences with members of governing boards in the past."

Zamudio said his decision to resign was a result of a situation in October 2003 in which he and Berry didn't completely agree on a program that would help students.

"I felt the way things unraveled after were not in my best interest," he said. "We did have our differences on how the district should be led."

Berry did not return several phone calls from the EXPLORER last week. A secretary in her office said Berry had been advised by the county attorney not to comment.

Bob Hendricks, the Marana school district's search consultant, said the new superintendent will get a salary somewhere in the ballpark of $110,000. That will be a step up for Zamudio, who currently earns $93,850.

However, it also will be a significant jump in terms of district size, going from three to 17 schools, which Zamudio said he's ready to handle.

"I believe that the skills I bring to the table comprise a strong foundation for solving problems that work in any school district size," he said.

He previously held superintendent positions in the St. David and Bowie school districts, and taught vocational agriculture in Douglas, Santa Cruz Valley and Safford.

All three Fort Huachuca schools have demonstrated continuous academic improvement during his tenure. Colonel Johnston Elementary School was "under improvement" according to state and Title I benchmarks, but progressively climbed to the rank of a "highly performing" school.

General Myer Elementary School was a "performing" school and is now "highly performing" and has been labeled "excelling" for the past two years.

Zamudio said high standards produce high results, and developing trust and cooperation is the most important task of a leader. He prides himself in being a leader who inspires and motivates those who work around him.

He received a bachelor's degree in science from UA in 1978, and followed up by earning his master's degree in 1982. Between 1989 and 1991 he did post-graduate work in administration at Northern Arizona University.

He has been the superintendent of Fort Huachuca Accommodation School District since 2001, supervising seven administrators, 84 teachers and 130 support staff members. The district serves about 1,260 military dependents.

Zamudio said he used his leadership skills to reverse a declining student enrollment trend, to halt state aid deduction that increased the district budget by $3 million annually, to develop and carry out a five-year financial plan and to initiate a school construction program.

Between 1995 and 2000, Zamudio served as superintendent of St. David Unified School District, where he said he was influential in the passage of a $2.7 million bond and he secured $2 million from state funding sources.

Between 1992 and 1995, Zamudio was superintendent and principal of Bowie Unified School District, supervising 14 teachers, 13 support staff members and 130 students.

He began his career as a teacher of vocational agriculture at Douglas High School in 1978, leaving in 1981 to pursue his master's degree at UA. With his degree in hand, he returned as a teacher of vocational agriculture at Santa Cruz Valley Union High School in 1982.

And, from 1984 to 1992, he served as a teacher of agricultural business management and welding at Safford High School.

Zamudio's credits include serving as past president of the Arizona School Administrators Association, past president of the Arizona Small and Rural Schools Association and past president of the Arizona Vocation Agriculture Teachers Association. He currently is serving a three-year term as one of three governing board members from Arizona for the American Association of School Administrators. Zamudio was Arizona's superintendent of the year for the 1999-2000 school year. He also received the school administrators association's distinguished administrator award in 2004.

His wife, Kimberly Zamudio, is a kindergarten teacher. Their daughter Linda is employed with Mesa Airlines and their son, Estevan, is a high school senior.

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