One of the Anoka-Hennepin School District's most influential decision-makers has been lauded by her peers in finance -- twice.

In August, Chief Financial Officer Michelle Vargas was named by the Twin Cities newspaper Finance & Commerce as one of its Top Women in Finance for 2012. Earlier this month, she was honored again, as Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal's CFO of the year in the Nonprofit Civic/Cultural/Education category.

In nominating her for the awards, district spokeswoman Mary Olson noted that she was hired into a district that was operating under the threat of a $60 million deficit. Despite 10 years of flat funding, the state's largest school district has turned that around to investing an $11.5 million surplus in educational "strategic initiatives."

The four-year plan aims to boost academics, even in an environment of uncertain state aid, when many other districts are slashing programs. It also has given decision-makers a level of flexibility and independence to plan and make budgeting decisions without having to wait on the state Legislature's actions.

Superintendent Dennis Carlson said he was pleased to see Vargas recognized by a finance community that included not only the nonprofit and public sector but private business. The work Vargas and her team did spared the district the kind of "divisive political battles" that are common in school finance, but which the private sector does not face, he said in a written statement.

"Michelle Vargas is the finest CFO I have known in my 40 years in the education business," Carlson said. "Too often, I think, school district finance is not recognized by the private sector at the same level as profit-making companies."

Vargas led an initiative to find ways the district could operate with less, which included right-sizing the district's elementary and middle school buildings for declining enrollment, resulting in the closure of eight buildings in 2010. She looked for other ways to streamline operations and make them more efficient. And finally, she worked toward the renewal of a 10-year, $48 million-a-year levy.

The new investments, already in the works, include expanded all-day kindergarten and preschool offerings, targeted STEM programs in all middle schools, strengthened literacy programming, an expansion of the AVID program to encourage high achievement among more students, the addition of social workers at the secondary level as well as coordinators for mental health and Title IX compliance, and more anti-bullying and anti-harassment resources and training.

Though Vargas has spent most of her career in school finance, she also has experience in the private sector as an accountant and accounting clerk.

"When you look at a for-profit, you might say the bottom line might be different than a school district," she said. "It's important to me what I do, and for our students making an impact for them is my biggest achievement. A better learning environment and more opportunities for them is what I'm always aiming for."

Plus, she said, transparency and accountability aren't key goals in the private sector, as they are in a school district, where credibility with voters can be the key to future funding.

More than 50 percent of the district's households have no children in them, Vargas said, and she is very aware that the district's finance decisions go far beyond the classroom to affect the region's housing market and tax base.

"All the decisions we make, there are many different lenses we're looking through," she said.

She should know. Her family lives in Andover and her two children attend elementary and middle school in the district. And before earning her degree in accounting at the University of Minnesota, Vargas attended Anoka-Hennepin schools. She is a graduate of Coon Rapids High School.

"I've lived in the district my entire life and worked the majority of my professional career here," she said, noting that her story isn't uncommon among employees who have deep roots in the district.

"It's just a sense of pride for all of us. We deeply care what happens."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409