Paducah Ind. leaders discuss minority employment status, challenges; advocate demands investigation of personnel practices, chair seeks evidence district system is unfair

Paducah Sun, Sept. 20, 2016

Paducah school board looks at minority hiring

The Paducah Board of Education had an unusually large crowd at its regular monthly meeting Monday night.

Many new faces came to celebrate the successful relocation of Paducah Head Start Preschool to the former Cooper-Whiteside building, while others came to learn more about the district's ongoing minority recruitment and hiring efforts.

The evening began with a musical performance from Paducah's preschoolers in the Paducah Head Start Preschool library. Monday's meeting was the first of what will be many "traveling board meetings," taking school board members to a different school each month.

"This building is wonderful, and I can't thank our teachers and staff enough for everything they've done to keep it that way," Head Start Director Kristy Lewis said following the students' song and dance routine. "Since we've added a new class this year, we have 20 more children than we did last year, and we'll be pushing the 300 mark by winter. There are so many children here in Paducah that need our services, so this building has really been a big benefit."

The board voted in April to consolidate and relocate the district's preschool classes to the former Cooper-Whiteside building on South Sixth Street. Before, they were spread among the district's three elementary schools. The move has improved the program's efficiency and ability to deliver services to students and families, Lewis said, while also making them eligible for a bigger pool of grant funding and giving them room to grow.

Monday night board members also heard from Finance Director Julie Huff and Assistant Superintendent Will Black about the challenges of hiring minority staff. Every September the district assembles a report detailing the racial makeup of its staff and outlining strategies for improving diversity in its ranks.

The district's percentage of minority employees has remained steady at 24.59 percent, Huff said, down just slightly from 24.87 percent last year.

"Considering the number of people we lost last year, I think it's remarkable that the people who do the hiring were able to keep things so steady," Huff remarked.

The district had five minority employees retire last year, she said, and two others left the district for personal reasons. However, the district also hired five minority teachers, offsetting the loss.

Black made it clear that while the Paducah district already has the highest percentage of minority staff in the state, there's more work to be done.

Considering that it is one of the most diverse in the state with almost 60 percent of the student body belonging to a racial minority, a substantial gap remains between the diversity of its students and staff. Paducah Public Schools is committed and working hard on closing that gap, Black said.

Two years ago the district changed up the way it handles minority teacher recruitment, Black said. In the past, one person from the central office would visit career fairs at colleges and try to network with potential minority applicants. Now the district sends a diverse team of principals and teachers -- the people actually involved in the hiring new teachers -- to meet and build relationships with potential minority staff members.

Paducah Middle assistant principals Patrick Saddler and Allene Houston Jones and McNabb Elementary Principal Teresa Spann spoke Monday night about their experiences as part of the district's "diverse recruitment team." They are all minorities.

"It was a really enlightening experience," Jones said. "I have to say, it's challenging, because we just did not see a whole lot of minority applicants."

Spann and Saddler echoed Jones, but despite the challenges they've seen in their recruitment efforts thus far, all three seemed hopeful their work would pay off in time.

"We're already building relationships with university leadership, we're starting to build those bonds," Spann said. "I do think it's making a difference. I'm in constant contact with a woman from University of Kentucky right now, trying to get her to come to Paducah. It's just about building relationships with these students and enticing them to come here."

Board Chairman Carl LeBuhn then opened the floor for public comment, and Pastor Alfred Anderson, president of the Community Clergy Fellowship, spoke. Anderson is one of several local African-American community leaders who recently made a public call for change and fairness in Paducah Public Schools' hiring practices.

"Mr. Chairman, we have evidence that the hiring practices of Paducah Independent Schools are not fair or equitable, and we demand an outside investigation be made and that hiring practices and people be changed," Anderson said.

LeBuhn replied: "If you have any information you want to pass on to our superintendent or our board attorney, you are welcome to do so, and we will review it and take your recommendation and request under advisement,"

As of Monday night, Anderson hadn't presented district officials with any evidence of the unfair hiring practices to which he referred. If and when he does, LeBuhn said, any allegations made will be investigated and taken seriously.

"We'll always strive for fairness and excellence in our administrators, teachers and our hiring practices, and we'll always investigate any problems that are brought before us, thoroughly," LeBuhn said.

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