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Farewell 

Linda Arzoumanian is getting ready to retire as Pima County’s superintendent of schools after 16 years

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MarÍa Inés Taracena

On a Friday morning 16 years ago, Linda Arzoumanian filled out a Pima County Superintendent of Public Schools application for the upcoming vacancy on the hood of her car.

In September 1999, after more than 30 years, then- superintendent Anita Lohr announced her resignation, effective Jan. 1, 2000. The Pima County Board of Supervisors needed to sort out nominees and appoint a Republican with a teacher's certificate to the position.

Arzoumanian was approached about the seat during a transitional period in her life, and applied mostly out of positive peer pressure. She remembers getting a phone call from a good friend persuading her with an inspirational chat about the great opportunity. At the time, Arzoumanian worked at CODAC, a behavioral health organization. She loved her job—first as a community coordinator, then director of child and family services and lastly the director of information systems management.

Before that, there were decades-worth of work in early childhood education—from teaching and being an administrator at a nursery school in New York from 1976 to '84, and eventually becoming a K-3 curriculum specialist and helping shape a full day kindergarten program for Tucson Unified School District back in the early '90s.

That Friday morning, Arzoumanian dropped off the application. She returned to her office at CODAC, and immediately requested a meeting with her boss, who'd find out about her move sooner than later. She asked about the possibility of getting a leave of absence, in case she did end up landing the superintendent job, but later lost the November 2000 election. It made her nervous. Her name wasn't well known in the political circles or to the voters, she says.

By December 1999, Arzoumanian got the job. She only had a few weeks to prepare to fill the big shoes on the first day. "I didn't know what the heck I had gotten into," Arzoumanian says with a smile.

She is retiring at the end of her fourth term this year.

The Quiet But Loud Accomplishments

"Without good education you can't have good business and without good businesses you can't have good education," she says. The phrase kind of became her mantra. It's what gave her steam in the November 2000 election, when voters decided she should keep the job another four years. It's also what's driven a lot of the work she's done as superintendent of schools, overseeing more than 200 public schools and the well-being of 160,000-plus students.

Perhaps one of the biggest badges of pride for Arzoumanian is having been a part of the grassroots support for what is now the Pima County Joint Technical Education District, aka JTED. She helped push for legislation that offered tuition-free career and technical education to high school students. It took two months after the legislation passed to get JTED on its feet more than a decade ago.

"Several of the career and technical education teachers from the different school districts asked if I would move things forward. We developed this thing called the business education roundtable... We started meeting with legislators and we moved forward with the vote. It was all of the cities that had unified school districts...high schools. JTED needed a place for housing, we housed them ... that December, I appointed 11 board members to JTED," Arzoumanian remembers.

Last year, Arzoumanian—and many others—had to deal with the news that Gov. Doug Ducey and the state Legislature decided to cut $30 million from JTEDs. The funding was later restored, thanks to a group of legislators and education advocates.

"Stripping us of $30 million, they really [would have] killed the program ... all of the work we have done with different businesses in Tucson and everybody [who] worked hard. Had I not had that background and had credibility in all of that, we may have not moved the needle," she says.

Arzoumanian calls her involvement in these types of political spectacles politics with a small "p." In the heat of the moment of getting things done, the last thought in her mind is publicizing every step she makes and every word that comes out of her mouth. "That's how you make things happen," she says.

She looks back at 2002, when she was part of another piece of legislation—one that expanded local professional development opportunities for teachers, administrators and home-school parents. Instead of sending them to Phoenix, they could stay down here. It saved Pima County school districts a lot of money, she says.

"We currently are part of a three-county thing called the Southern Arizona Re]gional Education Center, we provide professional development in Santa Cruz and Cochise [counties], and in Pinal County. A lot of what we do is because we got this legislation passed," Arzoumanian says.

She also came up with an improved way to fill vacancies in school district governing boards, which emphasizes the importance of the community's input—parents, teachers and even business leaders —in the decision-making process.

The Next Phase

"Melancholic is a good word," she says sitting in a conference room next door to her office. She gets a bit teary-eyed. A lot has happened in this office.

But not all is sad in this farewell. Arzoumanian, who grew up in Wisconsin, is excited to travel more to visit friends, a son and grandchild who live in Seattle, as well as being with her 93-year-old mother who lives in Minnesota more often than three times a year. "I have put all of that on hold for the job."

The new professional endeavor involves teaching online classes on early childhood education—Arzoumanian's first love—at Pima Community College.

There are three people who are after the seat: Republican Margaret Burkholder and Democrats Michael Gordy and Dustin Williams.

Burkholder has until June 1 to turn in at least 771 signatures to make the ballot. Gordy and Williams need a minimum of 848 by the same deadline. The number of signatures is based on the number of people who registered to vote in each political party.

More by María Inés Taracena

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