After 38 years in education, John Baracy, superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified School District, is retiring.
Baracy spent his last day on the job Thursday after holding the school chief position since 2004.
"This is it," said Baracy, who turns 59 on Saturday. "I think I'm leaving a much better place than what it was before I came. This was a team effort, and I was glad to be a part of it."
Baracy's decision to retire, he said, was to take care of some health issues, which he wouldn't elaborate on.
Three weeks into his job as superintendent of Scottsdale schools, Baracy was diagnosed with prostate cancer, something from which Baracy said he has successfully overcome.
He is credited with stabilizing the district's finances and managing a $170 million budget and 3,000 school employees in a district that enrolls 25,900 students in 32 schools. Twenty-two of those schools have earned the "excelling" label, the state's top academic ranking, which is up from 18 in 2004.
His departure comes as the district is dealing with the emotionally charged issue of school closures and consolidations.
THE GOOD WITH THE BAD
Baracy helped to steer a $217 million bond issue in 2004 that paved the way for renovations to all five high schools.
In addition to the renovations, Baracy was on board for two successful overrides in the November 2007 election, one for a $12.9 million maintenance and operations override renewal that paid for 179 teachers' salaries and school programs. The other, a $69.3 million capital override, paid for school improvements such as technology, playground, school furniture and other items.
Despite declining enrollment within the district, out-of-district students have nearly tripled under the Baracy years - from 1,000 in 2004 to 2,900 today - according to information from the district. This is at least partly due to Baracy's plan to attract those students through open enrollment.
"It's not just a profession, but a business," said Baracy, a 24-year resident of Scottsdale whose two children graduated from schools in the district.
Baracy also saw the district through difficult times - allegations of a school heroin ring, school calendar disputes and high school bond debates, in which his much-wanted sixth high school never came during a time of declining enrollment in an aging community.
After the close of Thursday's business day, Baracy chose to appear at spirited public hearing at Desert Mountain High School to discuss the consolidation of Aztec and Zuni elementary schools at the Zuni site. The transfer of the Cheyenne Traditional K-8 school to the Aztec site also was debated.
A move Baracy supports, the plan projects to save the district $850,000.
But some parents feel it is a ploy to pave the way for the passage of a bond issue because they believe the move would really cost $5.7 million as part of a $194 million bond election, an amount they believe the district does not have to spend.
"I think Dr. Baracy's plan is misguided, flawed and not fiscally responsible," said Erin Strickstein, a parent whose daughter attends Aztec and does not support the schools merging. "We feel the merging is being promoted as a necessary move to achieve an $850,000 savings, but that's not the case. The merge would be costly and would be a duplication of staff."
'FINDING COMMON GROUND'
Thursday's hearing could be compared to Baracy's beginnings in Scottsdale when he succeeded Barbara Erwin in 2004.
After serving as the superintendent of the Tempe Elementary District, he accepted the job in Scottsdale after the school board voted 5-0 to hire him during a time of community distrust of the district.
"From the beginning, I thought it was important to develop a plan to succeed with the community," Baracy said. "I always thought it was important to say, 'It's OK to disagree, but not be disagreeable.' It was time for everyone to put down their verbal swords. People felt they weren't being listened to."
Karen Beckvar, president of the Scottsdale Unified School District governing board, said it was Baracy's experience in the state and with finance that helped give him the nod.
"I think it's been very positive for our district," Beckvar said of Baracy's tenure. "He helped bring all aspects of the community together with a shared vision and goals and brought financial stability to our schools. He worked toward finding common ground."
"I think he set a vision for our schools in four years, and one that we will work hard to continue," said Katy Cavanagh, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. "Dr. Baracy provided a model of partnership and worked hard to achieve that. One of his goals was that all 32 of our schools will be excelling by 2010, and we will work to achieve that."
Baracy also added a personal touch to the administration, renaming positions in the district office such as the receptionist to "the director of first impressions."
A national search for Baracy's successor will begin in January, Until then, Cavanagh and David Peterson, assistant superintendent of operations, are serving as co-superintendents.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
During the last few weeks, Baracy has been clearing the shelves in his office of mementos, and visiting some of the schools to chat with the students.
He is far removed from his days of working part-time as a college student for $12 an hour - in the late 1960s at the Ford Motor Co.'s Wayne Assembly Plant in Michigan, test-driving Fairlanes off the line.
The money helped pay for the Detroit native's college tuition at Eastern Michigan University, where he majored in business and even for a few dates.
Baracy, who said he always wanted to be a teacher, but followed his mother's advice to go into the business, is proud the high school renovations were completed on time, under budget and without the students missing a day of school.
Baracy said in retirement, he'll visit his son, John, in California, root on his niece - Miss Michigan Ashlee Baracy at the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas in January - and spend more time with his six grandchildren from his blended family that includes triplets.
"The job has been a lot of fun," Baracy said. "I've had a great time doing it, and had a great team in place. I will miss it greatly.
"When I wake up on Friday, I'll sit and have a cup of coffee with my wife, let my dog sit on my lap and maybe read the paper."