Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker’s career history is filled with radical changes. From moving from the Sonoran Desert to above the Arctic Circle, to turning a district of one school into a district of 22 schools, Baker has seen his fair share of extremes.
But Baker says constant change is something he’s not only learned to live with, but embrace.
“The reality is, I don’t know any different,” he said. “I happened to jump onto the rocket ship as it was taking off. We’ve grown every year I’ve been here.”
For his leadership serving as Vail superintendent since 1988, Baker won the award for best Chief Executive Officer in Public Service/Education at Tucson Local Media and Inside Tucson Business’ 2019 Executive Excellence awards.
After receiving his award, Baker recognized his district’s staff and school board members, three of whom sat in the audience, as well as his wife of nearly five decades.
“Good things happen in the Vail School District,” he said. “It’s people like that, that make public education work and work well. Thank you very much.”
Baker began his educational career teaching fifth grade on half a cafeteria stage at an overcrowded school in the Peoria School District. At only 26, he left the Phoenix area to take a role as principal in an Alaskan Inuit community north of the Arctic Circle. His career further progressed when he returned to Arizona to serve as principal at Vail’s only school in 1987. He assumed the role of superintendent the following year.
Aside from running a school district of 400 students as it turned into a school district of 14,000 students, Baker is also the senior member of the Arizona State Board of Education.
Baker said the biggest struggle during his 47-year educational career was adjusting to the rapid growth of the Vail School District. He lists how he dealt with that growth as one of the district’s greatest successes: finding common ground between the multiple peoples and cultures of Vail. This also helped him deal with some of the struggles shared between businesses and education institutions.
“Entrepreneurs have to completely generate their own revenue, and I don’t have to do that,” he said. “But what is similar, is that my revenue is rarely sufficient to cover all the needs and costs, especially in a growing district. Just as a growing business needs to find capital for expansion, and find money for expanding payrolls, we face the same kind of burden. But we don’t chart our progress with dollars. We chart our progress with parent satisfaction and student achievement.”
The award for best CEO is far from the first time Baker was recognized. He previously won Arizona Superintendent of the Year.
“It’s both very honoring and rewarding, and simultaneously, it’s very humbling because I’m only as good as the people who are around me,” Baker said. “There’s this false image that somebody sits in the executive seat and directs traffic, and tells everybody what to do. But in reality, there’s no way I could manage 2,000 employees. It works because people take initiative and ownership… I’m really proud of the quality of staff that we have in the district, and I’m really proud of the community engagement. They care deeply about the success of kids and the quality of things happening in our community.”
Baker’s Executive Excellence recognition comes at the end of a nearly five-decade career, as he recently announced his plans for retirement at the end of January 2020. This comes after nearly 33 years as superintendent, and a cancer diagnosis.
“I’ll have to figure out how to live without eating, drinking and sleeping the Vail School District, because that’s all I’ve been doing for well over 30 years,” Baker said. “And then I hope to take some vacations, that ought to be exciting.”