Fayette County school board chairman John Price joked at a meeting this week that the district's next superintendent would need to "be able to walk on water."
But Price wasn't kidding when he said "it's a very challenging job" to an official of the public engagement firm trying to determine qualities for the replacement for Tom Shelton.
"We have a lot of students whose needs have not been met, and we have got to figure out a way to bring the whole community together" and to change the way the district delivers services, he said. "We have to do every day everything possible for every student in every building."
The public engagement firm K12 Insight held meetings across Lexington this week in an attempt to develop a profile that can be used to advertise the position for Fayette County's next superintendent. By July, the school board hopes to hire a replacement for Shelton, who resigned as of Dec. 31 to become executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.
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Shelton's final year as superintendent was a tough one, marked by budget cuts and a state audit that found chronic mismanagement of the district's finances. Before he resigned, three board members supported him and two had expressed doubt about his continuing in the job.
Fayette County is Kentucky's second-largest district with more than 40,000 students, more than 5,000 employees, and a $422 million working budget.
Among the challenges faced by the district's next superintendent is that William Wells Brown Elementary School in 2013-14 received the lowest test scores in the state among elementary schools.
James Brown, vice president of the 16th District PTA, said the new superintendent should "have the courage to realign resources to help schools that are not achieving."
Brown said people who attended a listening session with the public engagement firm at Douglass Park this week said they were looking for someone who could build relationships with the community, with staff, with city government officials and all others who have a stake in Fayette County Public Schools.
Parents want someone who wants to ensure that all children achieve at high levels, he said, and think "the new superintendent needs to be ready to deal with the challenges with leading a diverse district."
Mayor Jim Gray was among the people who had asked to be on a screening committee for candidates, but the school board determined it was limited from adding positions that were not specified in state law.
Gray said the new superintendent should be "an innovator with a proven record of academic improvement at all schools. A leader in successfully addressing racial and economic student achievement gaps. A visionary who inspires students, parents, teachers, principals, and staff. An outgoing person who partners with the city. A good communicator who reaches out to the community. A leader in workforce training."
Equity Council members have been frustrated that years of recommendations, programs and new initiatives have done little to help students advance and close the achievement gap between racial minorities and other students, and among socioeconomic groups.
Roy Woods, chairman of the district's Equity Council, said that group is looking for someone who knows about maximizing student achievement "not just in rhetoric or theory but has some proven steps that they have used in an urban setting."
The NAACP is among the groups that have criticized the district for inequities between minorities and other groups.
Shambra Mulder, education committee chair of the Lexington-Fayette County NAACP, said that group wants someone with a proven record of success in leading an urban school district and an intentional focus on the equitable distribution of resources to high poverty schools.
The next superintendent should ensure that the district meets equity goals and have a proven record of holding principals accountable for hiring black and Hispanic teachers who reflect the diversity of the city and schools, for closing the achievement gaps, and for lowering the number of suspensions of racial minority students, she said.
"We are more interested in a proven record of actions, as opposed to characteristics and personality of the next superintendent, that will lead to FCPS becoming a successful school district," said Mulder.
The district's next leader should see students as partners, said one student at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.
"We are the most important stakeholders in our education, and it's essential that the new superintendent sees students as partners in rather than as just consumers of their education. Students are not only the future, but also the present; it's time that student perspectives are taken into account in educational administration, and a new superintendent who is aware of this vitality is a perfect place to begin," said Sahar Mohammadzadeh, a ninth grader at Dunbar.
Devynn Fergerson, a tenth grader at STEAM Academy, wants "a superintendent that can inspire not only the students but the community to believe in us and our dreams to become whatever we want to be. I want a superintendent that doesn't accept average as good enough because average isn't good enough for me."
"The new superintendent needs to be a change agent," said Eleanor Clifton, a tenth grader at STEAM Academy.
Eleanor is looking for "a powerful communicator and negotiator who is in tune to" Next Generation Learning, which accelerates educational innovation through applied technology to improve college readiness.
"It is important to me that student voice is heard and responded to," she said.
A new STEAM Academy is set to be built near the University of Kentucky College of Education.
"Our hope is for a new superintendent who realizes the tremendous benefits a close partnership between the district and our university will provide, both for the children of Fayette County and the future teachers and educational leaders at the University of Kentucky, said Mary John O'Hair, dean of the College of Education.
Jessica Hiler, president of the Fayette County Education Association, a voluntary group that represents teachers, said teachers want someone who is open to new ideas and values all stakeholders' opinions and is willing to engage all stakeholders in the district, someone who is visible and "someone who is interested in decreasing the size of Central Office and not increasing the size of Central Office."
School board members, meanwhile, said they want a superintendent who sends the board's message to the staff.
The new superintendent will find that Fayette County has many resources and that the business community will be "100 percent behind" them," said Bob Quick, president and CEO of Commerce Lexington. Members hope for a strong manager and a visionary, he said.