Longtime educator Marlene Helm named interim superintendent of Fayette schools

Marlene Helm
and other district officials will meet with the state  education chief.
Marlene Helm and other district officials will meet with the state education chief. Herald-Leader

Longtime Fayette County educator Marlene Helm, described as having "a proven track record of putting students first and working to ensure high achievement for all students," on Thursday was named interim superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools.

Outgoing Superintendent Tom Shelton is resigning to become director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. His last working day will be Dec. 12. The school board hopes to name a permanent replacement by July.

Retired Anderson County Superintendent Ronald "Sonny" Fentress was the other interim candidate.

"Dr. Helm's variety of experiences and familiarity with our school district make her uniquely suited to hit the ground running and tackle the challenges we face," said John Price, chairman of the Fayette County School Board.

With the unanimous vote Helm was been named interim schools chief for the district for the second time in a decade. She served as acting superintendent for three months in spring 2004, after Ken James resigned less than a year into his contract as superintendent and before Stu Silberman was hired.

"Not only has she stepped into this role for Fayette County in the past, Dr. Helm has also served in an interim capacity in many challenging situations with other organizations and has been highly successful," Price said. "We are confident she will surpass our high expectations."

Although Helm will not officially begin as interim until January, her contract includes up to 12 work days in December in order to overlap with Shelton. Her contract extends through June 30, but it could be extended if a permanent superintendent is not in place by then. Helm's salary will be $1,000 a day, slightly less than Shelton's current daily rate of pay. Shelton's annual salary is $264,000.

The board named Mary Wright, the district's chief operating officer, as superintendent designee from Dec. 13 to 31, the time during which Shelton officially will be superintendent but won't be working because of accrued leave time.

The school board has said that Helm's priorities are improving culture, climate and communications; maintaining a focus on student achievement; addressing issues in a state audit this year; continuing the process of redrawing school attendance boundaries; and moving forward on the budget and staffing allocation efforts.

Price said it was important that the district make significant movement in closing achievement gaps, and Helm said implementing the 10 Equity Council recommendations recently approved by the school board would be among her top priorities. Another priority is the district's response to a state audit that found chronic mismanagement.

Her challenges include overseeing plans to build a new high school; 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.

Helm said Fayette County had a legacy of educational excellence.

"It's our time to shine once again," she said.

Helm said she and the board, which has been divided in the past, had agreed they would work together as a team. She said she had no intention of applying for the permanent position.

Price said Helm had "a proven track record of putting students first and working to ensure high achievement for all students."

"We know that's where her heart lies, and based on our past experiences with her, that needs to be our focus," he said.

Helm began her career teaching sixth-grade science and reading at Breckinridge Elementary School. After six years as a director of elementary curriculum in Scott County, she returned to Fayette County; over the next 14 years she held a variety of administrative positions, including personnel supervisor, director of state and federal programs, director of Early Start, assistant to the superintendent, affirmative action officer and director of elementary schools.

"I am extremely excited and humbled by the support and confidence the board has that I can step in and serve in this role in this critical time," Helm said. "I will approach this role with tenacity and a sense of urgency. My focus will be on improving, clarifying and correcting that which needs to be better, and helping to craft a new vision for persistent areas of concern and challenge."

Helm said she would leave her job with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, where she is a branch manager.

She also has been commissioner of social services 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. She has taught graduate teacher education courses at Georgetown College and the University of Kentucky.