Stu Silberman, who has been superintendent of the Fayette County Public Schools since 2004, announced Tuesday he will step down effective Sept. 1.
The Fayette County Board of Education has scheduled a meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday to discuss the search for a new superintendent. Board members are required by law to name a screening committee to review superintendent applicants. The board also has the option of hiring an outside search firm to find applicants.
Board chairman John Price said Tuesday he wants to have the screening committee in place within 30 days. He hopes a new superintendent can be on board by July 1, so the person can have a few days working with Silberman before he leaves. Silberman's last work days will be in July, district officials said.
At a news conference Tuesday morning, Silberman said he began thinking about retirement a few months ago, discussed it with his family during the Christmas holidays and reached a final decision over last weekend.
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After 37 years in education, Silberman wants more time to spend with his family, particularly his 3-year-old granddaughter.
"There are mixed emotions," he said. "My heart and soul are here with the Fayette Public Schools. But there's something about when you get to that point in your life that you know it's time to retire. It's my time."
Silberman added, however, he might eventually consider some other job if something interesting came along that offered family time.
"The thing I guess I'm most proud of is the increases in student achievement that have taken place ... along with the narrowing of our achievement gaps," he said. "We still have a long way to go ... but I'm very confident we have a foundation in place that's going to allow our district to continue to get better."
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray issued a statement saying Silberman "turned our schools around. They're on solid financial footing today, and our kids are excelling academically."
Silberman's sudden announcement took many by surprise because there had been no public indication he was contemplating retirement. When Silberman became superintendent almost seven years ago he pledged to stay 10 years to give the district stability. Stability has been achieved, he said.
Silberman — who's motto "It's about kids" became a district theme — discounted speculation that his decision stemmed from recent criticism over snow days or a call to another post. Silberman shattered a hip joint in a 2006 biking accident, but he ruled out health problems as a factor in his announcement.
"I'm not going to lie and tell you that when it gets cold my hip doesn't hurt, but that's not related to this at all," he said.
Silberman's retirement comes as the makeup of the county school board is changing, with a new chairman, Price; and two new members, Douglas Barnett and Daryl Love.
Silberman came to Lexington after serving as superintendent of the Daviess County Schools in Western Kentucky. He was twice named state superintendent of the year; was a finalist for national superintendent of the year in 2009; and now is president of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.
Silberman arrived when Fayette schools were struggling with instability in a series of superintendent appointments. He was the fifth superintendent named in a three-year period.
Since then, Silberman has been credited with restoring stability, promoting trust in the county school system, raising test scores and boosting student achievement. Only about half of Fayette students were meeting state testing benchmarks in 2004; almost eight out of 10 did so last year.
But Silberman also had some rough patches, including the controversial 2007 resignation of Booker T. Washington Academy Principal Peggy Petrilli. An in-house district report accused Petrilli of testing improprieties, but the state Department of Education later said it couldn't find enough evidence to support that. Petrilli sued the school district, claiming she was forced out, but a jury ultimately rejected the claim. She has asked for a new trial.
Silberman also drew fire last year over the school board's 4-1 vote to outsource its legal services. Board member Amanda Ferguson sharply opposed the plan. Richard Day — an education blog moderator and former Fayette elementary school principal — later suggested that outsourcing was a disguised plan by Silberman to get rid of the board's in-house attorney, Brenda Allen. The board signed a $200,000 settlement with Allen in August.
On Tuesday, Day said Silberman had "come down a little heavy" on some other personnel matters over the years, but gave him a "95 percent good" rating.
"You can't address today's challenges while trying to make everybody happy," Day said. "We can say he should have done this or that ... but in the end he's shown himself to be a strong superintendent who was not afraid to lead."
Efforts to reach Ferguson Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Silberman's retirement and the Jefferson County School Board's recent decision not to renew Superintendent Sheldon Berman's contract means Kentucky's two largest school districts are looking for superintendents. But Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said that shouldn't hinder Fayette County in its recruiting efforts.
Under state law, the board's screening committee must be composed of two teachers; a board member; a principal; a parent and one classified district employee. The committee could review applicants and submit a list of finalists to the school board, although board members are not required to appoint someone from that list.
The board might consider procedures that were used when Silberman was hired in 2004, Price said. Back then, the district held public forums at which residents could question finalists.
"We want the maximum amount of community input," Price said.