Moments after John Baracy received the call he’d been hired as the Scottsdale school district’s newest superintendent, he sat down with a district parent.
The Saguaro High School parent was seated next to Baracy and his 26-year-old daughter Martha, a Saguaro alumna, Thursday at a Diamondbacks game at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.
"I had a bag of peanuts, and I turned and said, ‘Would you like some?’ We had a nice conversation," Baracy, 54, said Friday. He takes over the Scottsdale Unified School District on July 1.
The openness is typical of Baracy, say those who know him.
"I would have to say that I think John is really one of the more forward-thinking superintendents when it comes to the community and engaging and marketing schools," said Karen Kleinz, associate director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Public Relations Association.
During his career, Baracy has sought out school districts in need of innovation, financial help, or ideas to help bring together stressed communities and arguing factions.
Having led Tempe Elementary School District from the verge of closing three schools to helping it reach its highest enrollment, possibly in its history, of 13,720 students, he said he hopes to have the same effect in Scottsdale turning around declining enrollment, financial instability and low morale.
On Thursday he accepted the job and began talks with the governing board on his contract, which is likely to be similar to Superintendent Barbara Erwin’s, including a $165,000 base salary. Without benefits, Baracy’s Tempe salary is $111,508.
For now, Baracy said he is reluctant to list a specific agenda before spending his promised first 100 days talking to school and community members, which is what he did when he first stepped into Tempe in 1999.
"I’d like to talk to and meet as many people as I can," he said. "There are many different ways to look at an issue and it’s important to remember that. If there’s ever a time we may disagree on something, we will not be disagreeable."
One thing is sure, said Tempe Elementary school board vice president Kim Gomez, Scottsdale parents can prepare to be flooded with information from their schools. He’s also worked with businesses including Motorola and Southwest Airlines to bring programs and dollars into schools.
"Before he came, we had gone through some tough financial times, and there was talk of closing schools," said Gomez, who was an active parent when Baracy arrived in Tempe. "Morale and mood wasn’t the best. He comes in totally open minded and really listens to you."
Kleinz said Baracy is not afraid to try strategies somewhat nontraditional for education in that realm. "He is open and transparent."
He said his goal is to turn the district, which is still struggling since Arizona Open Meetings Law and bidrigging violations were found five years ago, into a stable, balanced community that trusts the school administration.
He also wants to curb a new trend of declining enrollment after Scottsdale lost 540 of its 26,700 students this year —and to save programs on the chopping block as the district struggles to balance revenue and expenses.
Programs enacted since his start in Tempe range from reorganizing the Tempe school day to allowing more teacher preparation time without cutting instruction to enhancing attendance with door-to-door visits to remind parents of the first day of school.
Free all-day kindergarten and music classes starting in kindergarten also flooded the district with open enrollment students whose numbers have increase to 1,400 from 550.
Most describe Baracy as easy-going and "reachable" — not one to use education or finance lingo.
"John’s a straightforward, honest individual, who will always tell you the truth," said Tim Hogan, attorney for the Center for the Public Interest, who worked with Baracy, then superintendent in the Roosevelt Elementary School District, as lead plaintiff in a lawsuit requiring the state to equally fund school construction through the School Facilities Board.
It was no mistake that Baracy moved to Scottsdale 20 years ago when he was hired as deputy superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District. He said he came for the schools, which were well known for their programs for special-needs children. His special-needs daughter Martha thrived at Saguaro and then Coronado, and was elected homecoming queen at Saguaro in 1996, he said.
Although he moved to Tempe after taking superintendent’s job there, Baracy still hikes the McDowell Mountains. An avid sports fan, he describes himself as "any other guy" who takes in movies, works out and considers his son, John, 27, among his best friends.