Call for focus on leadership, communication, equity issues as search for Shelton replacement begins

Tom Shelton's last day as Fayette County schools' superintendent was Dec. 12, 2014.
Tom Shelton's last day as Fayette County schools' superintendent was Dec. 12, 2014. Lexington Herald-Leader

Jessica Hiler, president of a teachers' group, says Fayette County Public Schools' next superintendent should be a dynamic leader who is supportive of school staffs.

PTA parent Liza Holland is looking for a superintendent who can keep the district's focus on kids, not adults.

And P.G. Peeples, president of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County, says the new superintendent should have a proven record of closing the academic achievement gap for minority, poor and disabled students.

With Superintendent Tom Shelton's announcement on Thursday that he is resigning to become executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, the school board will begin preliminary work Monday to choose a new district leader.

"I have no idea who the candidates would be," school board chair John Price said Thursday. He said the process for hiring a superintendent will be similar to what the board did when it hired Shelton in 2011.

"We started out with looking for a search firm, we did community input sessions to try to come up with what the community was looking for in a superintendent. When we got through reviewing their input, what the community was looking for and what the board was looking for was very much alike," said Price.

"I think we need to make sure that whoever comes in next ... is more of a dynamic leader," said Hiler, president of the Fayette County Education Association, a teacher's group that will be looking for support from the new superintendent.

Hiler said Shelton "had some great ideas for moving the district forward." While he was always willing to listen to her, she thought he could have had better communication with the district as a whole.

"I think follow-through and communication were some of the things he needed to work on," Hiler said.

On Thursday, district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said Shelton did not have a comment beyond his statements in the resignation announcement.

Hiler said she thought Shelton's first 18 months in Fayette County went smoothly. But with 2014 came his announcement that budget cuts were needed. In September, a state audit found chronic mismanagement of the district's finances. The audit said accounting errors were contributing factors in the district's budget cuts.

"Once everything happened with the budget, I think it just kind of overshadowed the things he was trying to do," said Hiler.

"The last year or so has been disappointing for everybody," Hiler said. "The whole audit mess was disappointing for everybody. It was not just his leadership. It was how the district was being run overall."

Roy Woods, chairman of the district's Equity Council, said the superintendent who is hired should have demonstrated in past work that they understood the importance of closing the district's academic achievement gap.

Equity Council members recently told the school board that decades of programs and initiatives had done little to help students close the gap. In response, the school board approved 10 recommendations that ranged from more help with mental health issues to teacher training. Shelton backed the recommendations, and Woods wants to make sure that the new superintendent — as well as any interim superintendent that could be chosen to lead after Shelton leaves Dec. 12 — would implement the recommendations.

"We don't need to pick somebody that doesn't have a track record of making it happen. They can talk all they want to talk, but if they haven't done it, we don't need to pick that person," said Woods.

Peeples, like Woods, wants "a proven gap closer."

Of Shelton's tenure, Peeples said: "It seems to have been a pretty rocky three years to me and I don't think all of that is attributed to him.""I think some of that is tied to the board. He and the board never seemed to have gotten into any rhythm," added Peeples, a former chairman of the Equity Council. "Most of the three years were spent dealing with adult issues and very, very, very little conversation about our children," said Peeples.

Following the scathing audit report, two of five board members, Amanda Ferguson and Doug Barnett, who had been outspoken with criticism about budget cuts, expressed doubt about Shelton's continuing as head of the district when his contract ended in June 2015. Ferguson and Barnett were both re-elected to the school board last week.

Price said he thought Shelton was leaving in part because "he saw a great opportunity to work with other superintendents around the state" with the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.

But Price also said, "based on the indications from Doug and Amanda that they would not support the renewal of his contract, I would assume that had some influence on his decision."

Price said that being superintendent in any district is stressful and "it's difficult to be a superintendent without a very supportive board. I think the more fractured the board is, the more difficult that becomes for any superintendent."

Woods said he thought Shelton had a vision of what it took to close the achievement gap, but that he didn't always get the support of his staff, parents or board members.

Holland agreed. She added that the new superintendent is in for "a very challenging job."

"Superintendent Shelton had a very clear and very progressive vision for the district," said Holland, former president of the 16th District PTA. "I think some people were not able to see it and execute it the way I think everybody had hoped."

"I would have totally and completely supported Tom Shelton continuing here," she said, "I think it's a loss."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader