Talking to a reporter last week, Marana Unified School District Superintendent Wade McLean tapped his finger on a story from a Jan. 15 issue of the Northwest EXPLORER and his eyes grew steely. The article detailed the accomplishments of two Amphitheater Public Schools Governing Board members who recently retired.
"The way you know when someone did things right in leading a school district is to answer the simple questions: Did that person's work permanently change the culture in the district? Did that person leave a legacy of positive change?"
Looking at the state of MUSD in the wake of McLean's announcement last month that he would retire in June after 30 years as a Marana educator and administrator, there's little doubt he fulfilled his own definition of "doing things right."
The culture McLean encountered when he was selected as superintendent in 1995 was factionalized and strained. At times, the atmosphere was downright vicious.
MUSD governing board members clashed with each other and with employees during public meetings. Teachers hurled invective at the board and claimed district administrators were hiding money buried deep in convoluted budgets. Teachers packed board meetings and staged walkouts over pay issues and parents questioned how their children could get a quality education amid such a charged atmosphere.
The town of Marana's rapid growth had led to crowded classrooms and strained budgets during the 1990s. At one burgeoning elementary school, the principal moved out of his office so it could be converted to a classroom.
"Early on after I became superintendent, the teachers' union called for my resignation," McLean recalled. "There were serious labor issues, just years and years of unrest."
Less than eight years later, MUSD under McLean's watch has become a model school district. Meetings of the governing board are placid affairs with as much time spent recognizing the accomplishments of students, teachers and parent volunteers as is spent conducting the business of running a school district. The discourse is unfailingly civil.
The Marana Education Association now touts its relationship with the district as the ideal of how a teachers' union and administration can work toward a common goal. A couple of years ago, the MEA that once called for McLean's resignation during the pay disputes voted to deny itself a raise and instead funnel the funds toward reducing the size of MUSD classes.
"It was clear as soon as I started that the level of distrust had risen to the point that relations were just simply unworkable. Employees needed to be brought into the process, they had to be part of the decision making," McLean said. "One of the first things I did was open the (financial) books to the MEA. They had to see for themselves where we were at."
Pam Simon, president of the MEA and a teacher at Tortolita Middle School, says it's that type of inclusiveness that has set the tone for collaboration rather than combat in the district.
"There are few superintendents in the nation that are as proactive in the sharing of district-level decision making with teachers as Dr. McLean. Under his leadership, Marana teachers and the district as a whole have gained much-deserved recognition at both the state and national levels," Simon said.
MUSD and the MEA have earned the most attention for their efforts in lobbying the Arizona Legislature on school funding and testing issues.
McLean, who said he gained additional insight into state education policies when he was elected to the Arizona State Board of Education in 2000, and where he now serves as vice president, has accompanied Simon and other MEA representatives to lecture other school districts and education organizations on lobbying techniques.
A check of Pima County tax records shows that it wasn't a case of purchasing good will from employees on the back of district taxpayers. Homeowners paid a MUSD property tax rate of 7.2 percent per $100 of assessed value when McLean took the helm. With only slight fluctuation in the intervening years, the tax rate is now 7.7 percent.
McLean's base salary was $87,000 annually when he began the superintendent's job. He currently earns $114,000 per year.
Another area of collaboration where McLean leaves his mark is in developing a close relationship with the town of Marana. The town and district have partnered in areas ranging from afterschool programs and park projects to planning schools for the town's booming growth.
At the Jan. 14 MUSD governing board meeting, Marana Parks and Recreation Director Ron Smith announced that a joint MUSD-town of Marana park being developed behind Coyote Trail Elementary School, 8000 N. Silverbell Road, would be named Wade McLean Park when it's dedicated in March.
Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. said it's fitting that the development of McLean Park was a joint effort.
"It's definitely not the norm that a municipality deals that well with a school district. There's a competition for funds sometimes and that type of thing. But besides helping to establish the great relationship between the district and the town, (McLean) has done great job for the youth of Marana. He's worked tirelessly for the kids and he means a great deal to this community. The things he has accomplished will continue to create benefits for the children of Marana for years to come," Sutton said.
McLean has been an insider at MUSD from the beginning, and his career could be a parable of "local boy makes good." Born in Tucson 53 years ago, McLean said the importance of education was drilled into him at an early age. His father was a bus driver for the Tucson Unified School District and his mother began working in its elementary school cafeteria when he began first grade.
"Just working-class folks, blue-collar people who understood the value of an education," McLean said of his parents.
McLean himself spent his high school years working after school in the University of Arizona's student housing cleaning bathrooms and waxing floors for $1.35 an hour.
McLean's interest in sports would lead him to Marana. After earning his bachelor's degree in education from the UA in 1973, McLean was student teaching at TUSD when he heard of an assistant coaching opportunity at Marana High School, where he would teach biology until promoted to the district's dean of students in 1976.
Photos in the 1974 Marana High yearbook show McLean with the football and wrestling teams he led looking somewhat like a characterization of the stern, no-nonsense coach - bulging muscles, jutting jaw and a whistle around his neck. He would be a regular at Tiger football games for years after he quit coaching - until priorities and his harried duties as an administrator cut into his attendance.
"As much as I love sports, it became less of a priority for me. The job led me to expand my experiences and I realized sports weren't as important as I once thought," he said.
McLean would rise through the ranks, becoming associate principal at Marana High in 1979, and principal in 1987.
He was appointed MUSD's assistant superintendent in 1987, and took over the top job from his "friend and mentor" Scott Foster after Foster contracted cancer. He died a year later.
McLean said he spent the first years of his tenure as superintendent trying to patch relations between the district and teachers and struggling with a growth rate that was one of the fastest in the state.
McLean cites the pace of growth for one of the few blackeyes the district received under his leadership - an investigation in 2000 by the Arizona attorney general of MUSD's procurement practices.
The investigation, which centered on work allegedly being steered to friends of MUSD Maintenance Director Bob Thomas without going though a competitive bidding process, resulted in a settlement with the state that essentially put MUSD on three years probation and required the district to reimburse the AG for the $5,000 cost of the investigation.
"Mistakes were made, and I still believe to this day that there was no intention to violate the law. We were simply growing too fast and became careless," McLean said.
The practices that led to the AG investigation have apparently been corrected. Earlier this year, MUSD was awarded a certificate of excellence in financial reporting by the Association of School Business Officials.
Much as he worked his way through the ranks, McLean requested, and the governing board agreed, to begin the search for his replacement from within the district.
Assistant Superintendents Rick Lesko's and Ron Rickel have applied for the job. The district's other assistant superintendent, financial director Scott Mundell, plans to retire within the next two years and did not apply.
The governing board is to consider Lesko and Rickel's applications at executive session meetings tentatively scheduled for either Jan. 29 or Jan. 30. The board may also consider opening the search to outside candidates, MUSD Governing Board President Dan Post said.
McLean said he hopes to continue as an adjunct assistant professor at the UA's College of Education, and has a line on a few consulting jobs he is considering. When asked what he believed to be his greatest accomplishment at MUSD, he thought for a long period and spoke slowly:
"That the district is perceived as an organization that people want to align with now. They want to align with us because we are successful, and that brings new opportunities for our folks - whether it's leadership opportunities, or opportunities for teachers or students. People are calling us asking us to partner with them on new initiatives. Doors are opening for the district that never opened before."