"Some of the other applicants that came in were very well-qualified superintendents, but they didn't have the advantage of knowing the people and the culture. In the end, that was a very important factor to us."
Walker, a San Juan Capistrano resident who is married with four children, worked as a commercial real estate broker before starting his career in the district in 1997 as a teacher at Santiago Hills Elementary School, where he was named Teacher of the Year.
Walker moved up to director of human resources in 2003. He was promoted to assistant superintendent in 2007.
The district used a search firm, Leadership Associates, to recruit for a new superintendent. Hanigan said the contractor held meetings with stakeholders and a public forum to find out about the qualities the community wanted in a superintendent. The resultant list included energy, a clear vision and a desire to advocate for students.
Community leaders said the process worked.
Rick Seibert, president of the Irvine Teachers Assn., said Walker was a good choice.
"He was on our bargaining team when he was teaching and then he became a district administrator, and he's been wonderful to work with over the years," Seibert said. "We've really kind of moved from an adversarial relationship in this district to one of collaboration and respect, and he is a driving force behind that."
Seibert said Walker and Gross have worked to change the tone inside IUSD.
Gross announced her retirement in December.
Walker said Gross was leaving the district in good shape. He plans to focus on using innovative technology in the classroom and continuing to move the district forward, despite dwindling resources.
Steffanie Early, Irvine Unified Council PTA president, said it was a "happy circumstance" that a lengthy search would end with someone who was already a leader in the district.
"I think he's extremely intelligent," Early said. "He's definitely committed to the excellence of the IUSD, and he has a very collaborative management style that has really served our community well, as we have some significant obstacles to overcome during difficult budget times."
Walker has master's degrees from Pepperdine University and UC Irvine, and a bachelor's from UC Santa Barbara.