Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton, who has led Kentucky's second-largest school district since 2011, announced Thursday that he is resigning to become executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.
"Although I did not enter into this decision lightly, I am very excited by the opportunity to work with other superintendents and impact educational improvement on a broader scale," Shelton said in a news release.
"In order for Kentucky to continue its progress in education, we must advocate at the state level for better funding of our classrooms throughout Kentucky."
Shelton has had a tumultuous year, marked by budget cuts and a state audit that found chronic mismanagement of the district's finances.
After that, school board members Amanda Ferguson and Doug Barnett expressed doubt about his continuing as head of the district when his contract ended in June 2015. While the three other members said they supported Shelton, Barnett said that Shelton had "failed miserably." Both Ferguson and Barnett were re-elected Tuesday.
Shelton interviewed for and accepted the superintendent's association position Tuesday afternoon, after a unanimous vote of the 22-member board of directors of the state's largest professional association of school superintendents, officials said in a news release.
Ferguson said Thursday night that she did not know if the concerns she and Barnett had expressed were a factor in Shelton's leaving.
"Obviously that is the speculation, but you would have to ask Tom about that," Ferguson said. "His letter said that he accepted the new position early Tuesday afternoon, before any election results were in, and I believe that wording was intentional. Only Tom can answer whether that is the full story. Also, there were far more people than just Doug and me who had concerns about Tom's ability to lead the district."
Shelton's last official day will be Dec. 31. District spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said Shelton's last work day would be Dec. 12.
"While I will miss being a part of the team here in the Fayette County Public Schools, I am confident that our school district will maintain a focus on kids," Shelton said.
"We have talented and committed employees who truly care about all children. We have families who want to work side by side with us to educate all children. We have unparalleled community support and resources. We have a board of education that will go to the mat for students."
Shelton expressed similar comments in an email to parents.
Deffendall said Shelton had no comment beyond his statements in a news release.
Board chairman John Price thanked Shelton for his service and said the district would rally to find a new leader.
"I believe every member of our school board team is committed to doing what is best for our students, employees, families and community," Price said.
Teaching and learning in classrooms and schools throughout the district will remain strong, Price said.
The school board will meet to begin taking steps to find the next superintendent, Price said. The board has a planning meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday.
The new superintendent will lead the district as it implements a new plan to redraw school assignment boundaries, opens a new high school, and makes new efforts to close the achievement gap for poor, disabled and minority students.
Under Kentucky law, a superintendent screening committee of two teachers, one member of the board of education, one principal, one parent and one classified employee must be formed to assist the school board.
"With the support of the board, I anticipate that we would have a very open process with lots of community involvement," Price said.
School board member Daryl Love said he wished Shelton well, but "our students can't afford for us to drag our feet, and as a board member I am committed to working alongside the rest of the board team to move quickly to address the immediate and long-term needs of our students, staff, families and our community."
Parents and teachers were concerned when Shelton, a certified public accountant with a doctorate in education, announced a $20 million budget cut this year.
Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen began investigating in May after district budget director Julane Mullins made allegations that centered on a $20 million discrepancy. In a 64-page report, Edelen said accounting errors were contributing factors in the district's budget cuts.
Edelen's examination found no criminal wrongdoing but cited "chronic mismanagement" of the district's budget and finances.
The audit detailed 10 key findings, including weaknesses in budget and financial-management processes, administrative and management salary increases that outpaced those of other district employees, excessive and unnecessary travel, misuse of a trust fund, and conflicts of interest.
Shelton initially expressed irritation because he thought some findings contained inaccuracies. But he fairly quickly changed his position and said that the most important thing was fixing the problems the examination revealed. The new superintendent could also have to lead the district's efforts to resolve those issues.
Shelton, 50, came to Fayette County the same year he was named Kentucky's school superintendent of the year.
He followed Stu Silberman, who became executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a non-profit education advocacy group.
Silberman had recruited Shelton to work for the Daviess County Schools and mentored him in the mid-1990s, when Silberman was running that district.
When Silberman came to Lexington in 2004 to become superintendent, Daviess County named Shelton as Silberman's successor.
Shelton served for three years as director of business and finance, six years as assistant superintendent for finance and operations, and seven years as superintendent in Daviess County.
Shelton chairs Kentucky's Council for Better Education, an advocacy group; is chairman of the board of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System; represents Kentucky on the Governing Board of the American Association of School Administrators, and is a faculty member at the University of Kentucky College of Education.
Silberman said Thursday he thought Shelton would do a "great job" with the superintendents association because he had held numerous state-level leadership roles and had trained superintendents for the last 10 years.
Alan Stein, chairman of the redistricting committee responsible for drawing new district lines for schools, said Shelton's departure will not affect that process.
"This has been an independent process from the beginning," Stein said. "Superintendent Shelton and the administration were very clear that he and the administration would not be playing a role other than that of service to the committee."
Barnett said, "I hope he finds happiness where he's going and I wish him well."