Former Anderson County superintendent is third candidate for interim Fayette job

Applicants for Fayette County interim superintendent from left, Sonny Fentress, Marlene Helm and Carmen Coleman.
Applicants for Fayette County interim superintendent from left, Sonny Fentress, Marlene Helm and Carmen Coleman.

The third candidate for interim Fayette County Schools superintendent is Ronald "Sonny" Fentress, a former Anderson County superintendent.

Fentress retired from Anderson County nine years ago and has held interim superintendent jobs in Kentucky nine times since.

The Fayette County school board interviewed Fentress and educator Marlene Helm on Friday.

The board interviewed former Danville Independent Schools Superintendent Carmen Coleman on Thursday. All the interviews were in closed session.

All three candidates have the background to make top administrative decisions, which is what Fayette County needs, said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.

"Sonny Fentress has worked as interim in all sorts of districts. Marlene Helm has the experience of having been an interim for that very district. Carmen Coleman was a very innovative superintendent when she was at Danville and is looked at as a resource by school districts since she has gone to UK," said Hughes.

The interim superintendent could serve for six months or longer while a national search is conducted for a permanent replacement for Tom Shelton, who resigned Nov. 6 to become executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.

Board chairman John Price said the board might not make a decision by Thanksgiving but hopes to have the interim in place by Dec. 5. Shelton leaves on Dec. 12.

Fentress was superintendent in Anderson County from 1986 to 2005. He was principal at Anderson County High School for six years before that.

Fentress has spent 42 years in education as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal and superintendent — most recently as interim superintendent in Muhlenberg County in 2013.

He said he was willing to help out in Fayette County because "it's a great opportunity."

Fayette County is known throughout the state for having good schools, he said.

Fentress said he had good experiences as an interim — his placements include Laurel and Mercer counties — and he thinks he would be a good fit for Fayette County, "but we will let the board decide that."

Coleman has two decades of experience in education. Currently the co-director of the Next Generation Teacher and Leader Academy, she is also an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and works extensively with the National Center for Innovation in Education.

Coleman was director of elementary schools in Fayette County for three years before going to Danville. She also spent four years as the first principal of Anne Mason Elementary School in Scott County and eight years as a teacher and curriculum resource teacher.

Helm's experience includes serving as interim Fayette County superintendent in 2004 and more than two decades with the district as a teacher, director of state and federal programs, assistant to the superintendent and director of elementary schools.

Her other leadership posts include director of elementary curriculum for Scott County Schools, social services commissioner for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, secretary of the state Education, Arts and Humanities Cabinet and interim dean of the College of Education at Eastern Kentucky University.

Helm is currently branch manager with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Price said school board members would make reference checks over the weekend. He said the board would go into closed session to discuss the candidates after its regular meeting Monday night.

"I think it's good that we think through this decision very carefully," Price said.

Board members want to find out how the candidates deal with difficult situations on the job.

"Any person who steps into this role will be dealing with some challenges," he said.

The interim superintendent will be dealing with a response to a state audit that found chronic mismanagement. Other challenges include low student achievement at several schools, and an achievement gap for poor, disabled and minority students. In addition, the district is redrawing school assignment boundaries for the first time in more than 10 years.

All three candidates are willing to serve past July 1 in case the board doesn't choose a permanent superintendent by that time. Shelton is willing to help the interim in any way he can, Price said.

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