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Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria lost both of her parents in the past three years. After their passing, she found a letter her father had written on behalf of her mother, petitioning the US to allow his wife to join him in the States. Neither of the immigrants had more than an eighth-grade education, but the letter implored the powers that be to understand that neither of them sought to be a burden to anyone. They just wanted to make a better life for themselves and their future family of four.
Decades later, Arrieta-Candelaria, the current CFO for the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD), would hold her grandson Henry for the first time and understand the legacy that her parents had created was being passed on. She saw her own features in the tiny face, the continuation of her own bloodline and heritage.
While her own parents may not be here, their family’s story will continue.
Arrieta-Candelaria’s story isn’t about being a burden. She’s devoted her life to public service, now at FWISD, and previously for El Paso Independent School District, the City of El Paso, and the Gadsden Independent School District. She even tried going the corporate route for two years in the middle of her own journey thus far, but it just didn’t take.
“I stepped out of the public sector, but I inevitably came back,” the CFO says. “I just love being involved in my community and have found that’s where I can be the most transformational.”
Her passion for public work was born, in part, from the resources she was able to access as she worked to attain her own education. Her family was extremely hard-working, but their low income meant that Arrieta-Candelaria was eligible for numerous Pell Grants and scholarships that would allow her to get her degree.
“My older sister really created that pathway in our family to show me the way,” Arrieta-Candelaria says. “We were very poor, and just accessing those resources and opportunities instilled a sense of purpose in me for public education. That gratitude, I hope, makes me a public servant and advocate for everyone to be able to get the education they deserve.”
One of Arrieta-Candelaria’s most challenging roles thus far was an unpaid role she took in 2013 as a member of a state-appointed Board of Managers responsible for helping the El Paso Independent School District navigate the fallout and aftermath of a districtwide cheating scandal that made national headlines.
“I was asked by the Texas Education Agency Commissioner to help the community get through a really difficult time,” Arrieta-Candelaria remembers. During her service on the board, she left the City of El Paso to take a job in the private sector but her work in the unpaid position would lead her to return to public service full time once her time on the board was up a year later.
It wasn’t the first time Arrieta-Candelaria stepped into a role it seemed like no one would want. Arrieta-Candelaria took a position with the Gadsden Independent School District in 1994, a district on the cusp of getting taken over by the state and needing strong financial guidance. The job was hard, but it offered Arrieta-Candelaria the chance to interface with state legislators and advocate for capital outlay needs for the district.
At present, Arrieta-Candelaria is evaluating FWISD’s academic return on investment and has engaged an external study as to what sort of evolution needs to occur when its COVID-era Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds (ESSER) run its course.
“One of the things I’m excited about is the work we’re doing with strategic budgeting and how we can institutionalize our work around how we plan, budget, allocate resources, and align spend cycles on the local, discretionary, and entitlement funding perspectives,” she explains. “It’s an opportunity for us to get motivated around what is going to improve student performance and how we measure that success.”
Arrieta-Candelaria says it’s her job to help position the school district for long-term financial success, both for students and the financial stability of her organization. It’s a role she relishes.
“I just love to fix things,” the CFO says. “I think my leadership is informed by that mentality. I love to motivate people, and I’m not afraid to hire people who are smarter than me to do amazing work. It helps me be better, and I want my people to reach for the stars.”
Outside of her day job, Arrieta-Candelaria continues to volunteer her time to board work that impacts the public, roles that have included police and fire pension boards, university medical centers, and organizations that hire employees with disabilities. Arrieta-Candelaria was even appointed to the Texas Lottery Commission in 2015 by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
And while that work continues to give her purpose, so much of her inspiration comes back to her family. Both the family that came before, and the one she now heads as a mother, grandmother, and an American success story.
Carmen Arrieta Candelaria is a proud member of DMCouncil, a premiere professional learning community for superintendents and school district leaders nationwide founded by District Management Group. As DMCouncil members, district leaders have access to DMGroup’s best practice research, expert advice, rich in-person and virtual professional development, and invaluable networking opportunities.
Since 2004, District Management Group has partnered with hundreds of school districts across the U.S. to help them strengthen internal capacity and achieve measurable, sustainable improvements in student outcomes, operational efficiency, and resource allocation, making things better for students, better for staff, and better for budget.