The Richmond Register

August 4, 2013

New county superintendent outlines vision for district

By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer

MADISON COUNTY — New superintendent Elmer Thomas met with the Richmond Register on Thursday, his first full day at central office, to discuss his vision for the future of Madison County Schools.

Thomas talked about his ideas for building trust among district stakeholders, facing financial challenges and fiscal conservatism.

He also laid out the beginnings of his plan to increase academic achievement in mathematics, an area where the district consistently remains below the state averages.

Fiscal conservatism and building trust

Thomas said when preparing to step into his new position, he began “digging through those (community surveys) quite a bit.”

During the superintendent selection process, the board received 776 survey responses and feedback from four focus groups comprised of certified staff, classified staff, parents and principals/central office administration.

“A large group of people got together and expressed what they would like to see in the next superintendent. So I think it would be important for me to know what those things are.”

Although there will be times when “some quick decisions will need to made,” Thomas said it was very important for him to just “get out and listen” for now.

The superintendent had already met with maintenance personnel who gave him ideas on how to run the schools more efficiently, “because they want to run an efficient school as well,” Thomas said.

On Friday, Thomas had plans to meet with the district’s technology staff to garner their feedback.

As he began wading through the survey responses, Thomas said “one of the big things” that stood out was, “maybe we’re a little overstaffed at central office.”

With the retirement of several central office staffers at the end of the past school year and after some employees shifted to new positions, two assistant superintendent positions remained open.

One was filled Thursday by Madison Southern High School Principal David Gilliam, who will serve as the district’s chief academic officer. However, the instructional supervisor position and a few other vacancies will remain open for the time being, Thomas said.

“I’m not ready to eliminate that position,” he said, reserving the option of filling it in the future if needed.

Thomas also said he would like central office to get away from “this stigma that we are central office, and we’re over here being ‘central officers.’”

For example, he said, “we’ve got a chief operations officer — well, the operations are out there, so let’s be out there in the buildings serving our kids, our principals and our schools.”

Although there obviously is work that needs to be done at central office, Thomas said one of his goals is to make its staff “a group that’s going to serve our kids and our people.”

However, Thomas also stands by his staff’s salaries. “For the size of Madison County and the job we do, the pay is right,” he said.

When Thomas left after a six-year stint as Boyle County High School principal in 2010, he took a $14,000 pay cut to head up the much larger Madison Central.

“But I love Madison County, and this is where I wanted to be,” he said.

Thomas also has been comparing teacher salaries to those in other districts, and with the exception of Fayette County, Madison County teachers are paid a little more, he said.

“The other thing is, though, our teachers haven’t had a raise in five or six years,” he said.

He pointed out that nearly 25 percent of respondents to the community survey listed “Dedicated, caring and loyal teachers/staff” as the district’s top strength.

“I think that our teachers need to be shown they’re valued, and it’s been a long time since they’ve seen a raise,” he said. “I’m not going to be a politician and promise anything, except that I am going to work at every aspect that I can to show how much we value our teachers.”

He assured teachers that he is not “messing with instructional days.”

Thomas was referring to the May 9 school board meeting at which a roomful of district staff protested a proposal to cut two contracted work days from the school calendar, effectively slashing pay for every district employee. The proposal died for lack of motion.

“We need every single day to teach our kids,” said Thomas, who spent the first 14 years of his career as a teacher in Spanish, reading and media.

Thomas said a better approach to having efficiently run schools is to look at staffing allocation formulas.

“When you have the appropriate amount of staff for the appropriate amount of students, that’s an efficiently run school,” he said.

And Thomas has many years of experience in overseeing a budget for large high schools, which he said prepares him for handling budgetary concerns of the district.

“I do go with the adage that if you’re faithful over a little, you’ll be faithful over much,” he said. “I feel like the budget was very faithful at any place I’ve been.”

Casting a vision for mathematics

Thomas recalled when the late Superintendent Mike Caudill began his tenure with Madison County Schools years ago, he said, “I want every kid in Madison County to be able to read.”

“That really resonated with me. I just remember as a teacher thinking, ‘wow, what a statement,’ because it all does begin with literacy,” Thomas said. “If I want to be a confident person and understand the world around me, I’ve got to be able to read.”

Following Caudill’s statement, Thomas said principals and teachers seemed unified behind that vision and decided they had to do whatever it takes to help students read.

Now, 10 to 12 years later, more than 80 percent of students are graduating at a proficient or distinguished reading level, he said.

But as a high school principal who closely followed the ACT scores of his students, Thomas said he observed huge gains in English and reading and even in science, “but math was lagging behind.”

For example, when the class of 2010 was in elementary school, 71 percent were proficient/distinguished in reading; then 80 percent in middle school; and 80 percent in high school.

But with math, only slightly over half were graduating with proficient/distinguished scores, he said.

“I just thought that it would be important as superintendent to cast that vision for math on day one.”

Thomas already met with principals and a few teachers during his first week to begin working on his vision.

“We’ve got intelligent people inside of our district,” he said, from which he will pull a team together to work on a systemic approach to teaching math, starting in kindergarten and on up.

“One thing that we’re really good at in education is jumping around a whole lot. I don’t want to jump around on this,” Thomas said. “Building a curriculum takes some time.”

Thomas pointed out that there are math programs in place all over the district and the new program being phased into elementary schools is designed to “fill in the gaps” for individual students by helping in trouble math areas.

“It sounds like it’s something that’s really good, but it’s a program, and I like people,” he said. “There are programs that work because there are people behind those programs who are making it work.”

Thomas said some of the district’s math interventionists are “really excited” about the program and “if they are able to use that to get the gains there, and it’s part of the systemic approach we take, then I’m good with that.”

The superintendent said he was interested in a “vertical teaming approach” that will build skills necessary to excel in advanced placement courses by the time they reach their junior year.

“A lot of people think if you take AP English, then it happens at the junior year,” Thomas said.

In fact, teachers are building English skills with literary responses in sixth grade and research papers in ninth grade, he said.

“I want to take the same approach with math,” he said.  

The district’s greatest challenges

Moving into his new position from his job as Central’s principal, Thomas is not far removed from the experience of “being in the trenches.”

“I was around teachers every day. I stood out in the middle of Second Street and directed traffic at the end of school every single day,” Thomas said. “In so doing, you run into a lot of parents that say what they think.”

He said through the superintendent search process with its focus groups and community surveys, the school board “got to hear what I was hearing every day.”

Thomas said he has to take that feedback and find a way to unify district stakeholders, build trust and restore a culture of high expectations.

“The challenge will be to take a large group of people and focus their efforts so that an even larger group — over 11,000 kids — can have that best opportunity to be college- and career-ready,” he said. “We have it within our ability to be whatever we want Madison County to be.”

Finances are going to continue to be a challenge, he said.

Madison County, along with 174 other districts, must pay a settlement to the Kentucky School Boards Insurance Trust, or KSBIT, after news that the long-time school district insurer was dissolving.

Madison County was given a “high-end” estimate at around $1 million.

The district also faces rising employee retirement expenses, the price of diesel to fuel the bus fleet, and decreased state and federal funding.

During his interview with the board, Thomas said he tried to convey his working knowledge of Madison County, his understanding of funding and budgeting, and his grasp on where the district stands instructionally and academically.

Although he earned his superintendent certification several years ago, he had no plans to leave the district.

“I was perfectly happy being the principal of Madison Central. I’ve always liked being a high school principal, but I just think the timing was right (to be superintendent),” he said.

“My interest lies within Madison County. There’s nobody from the outside who is going to love Madison County more than I am,” he said. “As I said on Friday, when they dig my plot, it’ll be in Madison County. I may get hit by a bus somewhere else, but they’re going to bring my body back here.”

Crystal Wylie can be reached at cwylie@richmondregister.com or 623-1669,. Ext. 6696.

SIDEBAR:The process of picking a leader

Former Madison Central High School Principal Elmer Thomas met opposition within moments after the board adjourned the July 26 meeting to announce its decision to hire him as the district’s superintendent.

Once the congratulatory clapping died down, a member of the Madison County Tax Watch group, Debbie Secchio, spoke out against the hiring of a candidate from within the district. She claimed that the $7,000 spent on the Kentucky School Board Association consultation services was a waste of money.

“I’m a taxpayer, and I was promised the best credentials and the best qualifications and the search committee to go way, way outside our borders,” she said

Thomas, an educator with 25 years of experience, rose to the top of a stack of 22 applications. Of the applicant pool, 19 were men; three were women; six were superintendents; eight were central office staff; five were principals; one was a member of an education organization; and two were retired or other.

KSBA consultant Mike Oder guided the board through multistep process that included creating a timeline; choosing the wording to advertise for the position; the selection of a screening committee within the confines of the law; and guiding the committee through the vetting process to provide the board “the cream of the crop,” Oder said.

The screening committee was comprised of two teachers, Stacy Brockman and Elaine Kresge, who were elected by teachers; one principal, David Gilliam of Madison Southern, who was elected by principals; two parents, Sara Smith and Angie Martin, who were elected by parent-teacher organization presidents; one board member, Becky Coyle, who was appointed by the chair; and one classified employee, Amy Carmichael, who elected by classified employees.

The committee took almost a month to call both listed and nonlisted references, examine applicants’ credentials and eventually create a short-list of three: Matthew Constant, assistant superintendent for Owensboro Public Schools; Robin Steiner, response-to-intervention coach in Fayette County Schools; and Elmer Thomas, principal of Madison Central High School.

When presenting its recommendations to the board, one teacher said at first she was skeptical about the money spent on the consultation services. But at the end of each committee meeting, members felt confident in the process and thought the money was well spent, board chair Mona Isaacs and board member Beth Brock recalled during two separate interviews with the Richmond Register.

“When you left (each meeting), you had no doubt in the decisions you made, in the cuts you had made and the people you advanced. There were no sleepless nights; you were confidant in what you did,” said Becky Coyle, who represented the board on the screening committee.

The board also took steps outside of the KSBA plan and included feedback from four focus groups made up of certified staff, classified staff, parents and principals/central office administration. A community survey also generated 776 responses between July 13-21.

The survey produced “a lot of good comments and valuable information” for the next superintendent, said Isaacs after the survey results were released. “I think every word needs to be read and considered – these are the things our next superintendent needs to hear.”

Just a few days before the July 26 announcement, Isaacs said the board had reached a consensus and that the chosen candidate was “an obvious decision for the board.”

However, to the surprise of the rest of the board members, board newcomer Mary Renfro (4th District) cast a dissenting “aye” as the motion passed 4-1 to hire Thomas on a three-year contract with a compensation package $143,000 a year.

That was $25,000 less than his predecessor, Dr. Tommy Floyd, who began a new position July 1 at the Kentucky Department of Education. Floyd’s $168,000 compensation package included nearly $13,000 in fringe benefits.

The board decided to “simplify the contract” and the new superintendent’s compensation package will include the same benefits afforded to other district employees.

The salary also was comparable to districts reporting student populations similar to that of Madison County’s 11,070 students. For example, the superintendent in Bullitt County makes $143,000 a year in a district of 12,752 students. In Daviess County, the superintendent makes $145,000 a year in a district of 10,831 students.

Early in the preparation process, the board advertised that the position’s salary would be commensurate with rank and experience.

Following the July 26 meeting, Renfro said she had a problem with Thomas’ $143,000 compensation package. She said $120,000 to $130,000 would have been more appropriate.

“I think it’s a lot of money for somebody without experience as a superintendent,” she said.

However, the four board members who voted to hire Thomas each said his interview helped sway their decision.

“If he does the things he says he’s going to do, he’s exactly what we want,” said board member John Lackey. “In my judgment, there was no real question amongst the candidates we got to look at as to who was the most qualified.”