Robert Padilla


The TUSD governing board has selected a search firm to replace Superintendent John Pedicone. Now we need to ask the question, what kind of leader does the district need at this point in its history?

The question, a crucial one, has not been adequately answered for the last 10 years. One insider was brought into the Tucson Unified School District (Roger Pfeuffer) as well as an outsider (Elizabeth Celania-Fagen). Pedicone was a former superintendent at a smaller local school district and generally well-regarded within the educational community. But not one succeeded in stemming the loss of students at TUSD (from 62,000 in 2004 to 51,000 today) or in formulating a compelling vision for the future of Southern Arizona's largest school district.

What can be done to change this?

The answer, perhaps, resides in identifying the nature of the challenge. If TUSD were a corporation, it would be identified as a company with a severe image problem that is rapidly losing market share and hemorrhaging revenue. It would be referred to as a "turnaround" company.

There is no dishonor in being labeled a turnaround company. In the early 1990s, IBM was a turn-around company. But IBM hired Lou Gerstner - one of the most brilliant CEOs of the late 20th century - and the ship was righted. More recently, Meg Whitman was hired to turn around Hewlett- Packard Corp.

Turning around an organization and running an organization are not the same thing. The two disciplines require different skills, different mind-sets, almost different spirits. Turnaround experts often make momentous, dramatic, highly visible changes within an organization that can be breathtaking - even unsettling - in their scope and daring. When Edwin Artzt, CEO of Procter & Gamble in the 1990s, set out to re-create P&G, he stated: "I'm going to take this place apart brick by brick and put it back together again."

I would argue that TUSD is in need of a turnaround executive. It does not need someone who can run a school district. Rather, TUSD needs someone who can turn around a school district.

Where can a turnaround expert be found? And how can that person be identified?

First, the net must be cast widely, as PROACT Search is expected to do.

Second, because of TUSD's well-documented administrative challenges, the next superintendent should have a strong operational background. This individual should probably know as much about business process management, continuous improvement and ISO 9000 certification (all of which have been implemented by Clark County School District in Nevada) as he/she knows about multiple intelligences and curriculum development. In fact, expertise in organization management might, given the needs at TUSD, actually take precedence over educational expertise at this point.

Third, TUSD might consider scouring the business world for its next leader. The superintendent of Orange Unified School District in California has an MBA, not a doctorate in education. And the district with 30,000 students is well-known for being run smoothly and professionally.

Finally, all new candidates should be asked for a 180-day turnaround plan in which they outline their thoughts on establishing a strategic direction for the school district and arriving at a thoroughly detailed new vision in their first six months. They should also express their thoughts on how they would begin to implement that vision to achieve the turnaround that TUSD so desperately requires.

There are many who insist that TUSD's problems are insoluble. I would disagree. But for TUSD to be fixed, the school district needs a leader - the right kind of leader - one who will have the courage, the vision and the transformative instincts to turn around the largest and most important school district in Southern Arizona.

Robert Padilla is the president of Clifton Consulting Group, an IT and management consulting firm with offices in Tucson, Phoenix and Los Angeles. He is also the former executive director of the Educational Enrichment Foundation, the foundation that serves TUSD.