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In 2012, Lexi Cunningham was pressured to drain money for buses, buildings and technology and funnel it to teachers' raises.
But Cunningham did not bend to the will of teachers unions and some school board members. If all of the money went to salaries, she asked, how could the district pay for upgrades to aging classrooms?
In the end, the teachers got a bump in pay but not enough to fry funds needed to keep schools running.
According to her mentor Margo Seck, the ability to maintain a big-picture perspective is characteristic of Cunningham, 51, who took over as head of Salt Lake City schools Friday.
"Kids come first. She'll make tough decisions that may raise some hair on the necks of some board members," said Seck, who preceded Cunningham as superintendent over Arizona's Tolleson Union High School District. "But if she thinks that it's in the best interest of all the students in the district, then she will not waver."
Other friends and colleagues cast Cunningham as an effective communicator who makes students, their families and her staff feel heard, spending much of her time in the schools she oversees.
"I think we have to make sure we open our classrooms," Cunningham said. "This is a welcoming place for all students and all families."
Cunningham plans to host school and community open houses in Salt Lake City, just as she did in the Tolleson schools, roughly 12 miles outside of Phoenix.
On a recent Saturday, she met with parents at the Salt Lake City Library's Glendale branch at the request of board member Michael Clara. Cunningham answered questions and talked to individual parents for about three hours.
"I'm encouraged and impressed," Clara said. "She's assertive not in a patronizing way but in a very professional way."
Clara and fellow board members have regularly sparred over the treatment of minority students, who make up about 60 percent of the district.
Salt Lake City's changing demographics are one reason Clara and board President Heather Bennett originally favored Cunningham's fellow finalist Krish Mohip, an administrator in Chicago's racially diverse public schools. Bennett's mind changed after watching Cunningham interact with administrators and students on school visits in spring, in which Cunningham asked thoughtful questions of both groups.
"She's a westerner, she's a woman, she's a white woman," Bennett said. "But I think she's proven herself able to address questions of diversity."
In Cunningham's former Tolleson district, about 90 percent of about 11,500 students also are minorities, with greater numbers of black and Native American students.
Under her tenure, graduation rates and test scores improved among those groups and in the general student population, noted Tolleson board member Vincent Moreno.
In Salt Lake City, "our focus is going to be on embracing all students," Cunningham said. She'll oversee the educations of an anticipated 22,900 students this year, making a salary of $190,000.
Clara believes it's too early to tell how quickly Cunningham will move to address what he says is the unfair treatment minority kids face, as well as police officers' presence in schools. But he praised her leadership style.
At the board's June meeting, Cunningham asked board members to write on notecards their priorities for spending half of a $2 million surplus in tax revenue. She pledged to meet with her deputies to hash out a proposal for the other $1 million.
"She kind of guided us through this process and then we realized, well, there is a majority of the board that agrees on this," Clara said. Most wanted the surplus to help cover insurance costs for employees.
Bennett agreed, saying Cunningham "helped us move forward in a non-cantankerous way."
Those same listening skills helped restore parents' and teachers' trust after a Tolleson district employee who predated Cunningham's tenure was indicted for embezzling $120,000 in school bookstore money, Moreno said.
Cunningham also grappled with the district's tight budget in 2012 and 2013, Moreno added, and worked with the board to rehire school social workers who had been laid off before she came on. And on "cookie Fridays," she offered Tolleson employees the chance to air concerns and catch up over confections baked by culinary students at a district high school.
In the end, it was the opportunity to work not just with youngsters, but also with teens, that lured Cunningham to Salt Lake City, Moreno believes.
"I think she wanted to be able to effect the change earlier in a student's life," Moreno said. "She's going to be deathly missed."
Michele Wilson, principal of Tolleson's Westview High School, suggested Cunningham, an avid hiker and mountain-biker, will be at home in Utah's wilderness.
She also said her former boss is quick-witted, with a good sense of humor. She recalled Cunningham's staff breaking out in laughter after their leader relayed that a chicken once chased her down the bike path.
Despite teachers' low pay and long hours, Wilson said, Cunningham also inspired instructors in orientation by characterizing teaching as a lifelong calling, not just a job.
But Cunningham expects from her employees the same accountability that she is known for, said Wilson.
"She gives you a lot of freedom to put your team together and create your goals," said Wilson, but "you need to report how it's going. You need to check in."
After hiring Wilson, Cunningham drove to Wilson's school once a week to touch base before starting her own day at the district office.
Cunningham also started a tradition of asking students to write letters to principals. It was important for Wilson, who struggled to have her campus meet school board benchmarks.
One student wrote, "Don't give up. We are improving every year," Wilson said. "That was really powerful to me."
In Utah, Cunningham said she would like to analyze district data to inform a host of potential policies. She also wants to carry out the school district's student achievement plan, which includes a push to have a bigger presence in neighborhoods.
The Phoenix-area native earned a bachelor's from Southern Methodist University in Dallas before moving back to Arizona to teach social studies and English in the Peoria Unified School District. She became a volleyball coach, leading the women's team to a state championship title before becoming athletic director of Peoria's Cactus High School in 2001 and principal in 2003.
Cunningham, who also has a master's in administration from Northern Arizona and a doctoral degree from Arizona State University, took the top job over Tolleson schools in 2011.
Cunningham said she didn't have any one experience that made her want to be an educator. "I always wanted to be a teacher."
What she's reading
She is reading the Jack Reacher novel "Make Me," by Lee Child, and "Driven By Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction," by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.