The Richmond Register

July 26, 2013

Central principal chosen as Madison County Schools’ new leader

Motion passes 4-1, Renfro only dissenting vote

By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer

MADISON COUNTY — The Madison County School Board voted 4-1 Friday to approve the hiring of Madison Central High School principal Elmer Thomas as the district’s new superintendent. Employees, family, and community members crowded into a room at the district’s central office at 1 p.m. for the announcement.

“At the end of the day, you don’t trust your policies and your strategies, you trust people. And I’m thrilled to trust Elmer Thomas with this school district,” said board member Beth Brock after the vote.

The only dissenting vote was from board newcomer Mary Renfro, representing the 4th district.

Following the meeting, Renfro said she had a problem with paying Thomas $143,000 a year. 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.

Although he never served in administration, Thomas’ career in education spans 25 years. He has served as principal of Madison Central High School since 2010; was principal of Boyle County High School from 2004 to 2010; was an assistant principal at Campbell County High School from 2002 to 2004; and served as an instructor in Spanish, reading and media at Central and Berea Community Schools from 1988 to 2002.

Thomas also served as an instructor at Eastern Kentucky University and the Governor’s Scholars Program at Northern Kentucky University.

He was honored with several awards over the course of his career, including the Kentucky Association of Secondary School Principals Principal of the Year in 2011.

Renfro said she agreed with Thomas’ ideas on being fiscally conservative and that she will “support him 100 percent,” but she couldn’t agree with his salary.

She said there were several other qualified candidates in the pool that should have been considered and having only met Thomas a few times, “he didn’t strike me as the top.”

“This felt like it was more of a popularity contest to me. Many of the people in the room today were from Central high school and a lot of people on the board know him very well,” she said.

Thomas signed a three-year contract with a total salary compensation package of $143,000 a year.

Former superintendent Tommy Floyd, who left the district at the end of the school year for a position at the Kentucky Department of Education, was earning a salary of $168,000 a year, $13,000 of which was fringe benefits. Payment of $35,244 in tuition for his doctoral studies in educational leadership also had been included in Floyd’s employment contract.

Earlier this week, board chair Mona Isaacs said the board decided to “simplify the contract” and offer the new superintendent the same fringe benefits afforded to other district employees.

She said members also considered the salaries of superintendents who lead contiguous counties and counties with comparable student populations to that of Madison County. Madison County reports a student population of 11,070.

Among comparable counties, 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.

A member of the Madison County Tax Watch group, Debbie Secchio, spoke out after the vote and said she opposed hiring someone from within the district.

“What about all the candidates that were assistant superintendents — you just crossed them off the list? Nothing personal Mr. Thomas. I’m a tax payer and I was promised the best credentials and the best qualifications and the search committee to go way, way outside our borders. We didn’t need to do that then, right?” Secchio asked, referring to the hiring of the Kentucky School Board Association for its consultation services.

“No, we did. We had a very good candidate pool, but this really isn’t the time to have this discussion,” Isaacs responded.

But Secchio continued.

“You didn’t learn from the survey that you took of the public — how their feelings are about this board and how it operates. So I said my piece. And you will be hearing from taxpayers.”

After the meeting, however, Brock said the board did listen to the community.

“I read every single comment from every focus group and every community survey that came in the door,” she said.

She also looked at the entire pool of 22 applicants, but felt confidant in the selections of the screening committee.

The screening committee was comprised of two teachers, one principal, two parents, one board member and one classified employee, chosen by their peers.

Brock said the committee even took care to discuss why it didn’t recommend certain candidates.

Board members were asked if there were other candidates that they would like to consider and “we all agreed that there wasn’t; that we really trusted the work that they (screening committee) had done,” she said.

The committee recommended “three stellar candidates,” she said. “But when it came right down to it, it was the interview” that convinced her Thomas was the right choice.

Thomas’ goals for the district aligned well with the board’s goals, she said. “His plan for the future really resonated with me.”

“We’ve definitely chosen the right man for this district,” said board member Becky Coyle, who also served as the board representative on the screening committee. “He will unify this district, which is what it needs so much. He’s shown strong leadership and he’s approachable.”

Even board member John Lackey, who has been known to side with Renfro as a dissenting voice on the panel, said Thomas “just blew us away in his interview.”

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

Lackey said Thomas’ talk about fiscal conservatism during the interview is what helped persuade him in his decision.

“I would say that Mr. Thomas was the cream of the crop,” he said. “I probably would have had some others in my final group to look at had I been part of the selection (screening) committee  — but I think I would have still voted for Mr. Thomas, honestly.”

Support from family, community

Among those who attended the meeting Friday were Thomas’ wife Marla, son Matthew and daughter Lauren.

“If I’m fortunate to make it to June 3 of next year, my wife and I will have been married 25 years — and this just doesn’t happen without support from the family,” Thomas said during a radio interview after the meeting.

Meanwhile, Thomas’ family took a moment to brag on the new superintendent.

“I think that this county is going to be very blessed to have him as a leader because he loves every single one of the kids that he serves,” said Lauren, 16, who will be a junior at Central this year.

Matthew, 12, a student at B. Michael Caudill Middle School, said his dad being hired as superintendent was “pretty awesome.”

“We do thank God for this opportunity and we know He’ll be with him the whole way,” Matthew said.

Thomas’ wife Marla is a counselor at Madison Southern High School. As an employee of the district, she said modifying the superintendent’s fringe benefits package to make it the same as other employees was “about doing the right thing for the district.”

“I’m very proud of him. I’ve been by his side for a long time,” she said. “I know what this district means to him and I know what he has to offer. I know the hours that he’s willing put in.”

Marla mentioned the “overwhelming amount of people” who sent well-wishes to the family.

 “I hope people realize how much that really means — to him, to us, to our family.”

Look in next week’s Richmond Register to read about the new superintendent’s vision for the future of Madison County Schools.

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