New board members take root in rocky soil
By Madelynn Coldiron
A bumper crop of new school board members take their seats this month, apparently undeterred and undiscouraged by a climate lashed by tougher academic standards, new accountability system, dwindling funds and the possibility of the state auditor showing up at their central office.
Moreover, judging by their attendance at the Nov. 30-Dec. 1 KSBA Winter Symposium, many are eager to begin getting the knowledge they need. One-third of the state’s 145 newly elected school board members attended the training, which is believed to be a record.
PHOTO: Barren County School’s three new board members, from left Shelley Groce, Randy Simmons and Kerry Dilley, share a laugh before a session at KSBA’s annual Winter Symposium.
Beth Griffith, a Winchester pediatrician who was elected to the Clark County school board, said she doesn’t look at school board service from the perspective of taking office during a challenging time.
“My perspective is I chose Clark County as a town to raise my children in and I want the schools to be better for everybody,” she said. “I volunteered in the schools for 18 years now, so this was the next logical step for me.”
New Barren County board member Randy Simmons, who said he simply wants to help serve his community and make good decisions for students, acknowledged the confluence of issues, including financial ones.
“I think the money situation is tighter than what I even thought it was before this – it’s going to be a good challenge, a tough challenge. I look forward to it, though,” he said.
While Griffith has many years of experience as a volunteer, other new board members cited their employment experience in schools as a motivation.
The Montgomery County school board is getting a built-in facilities advisor in Alice Anderson, who supervised custodial staff and was safety coordinator during her 29 years with the district.
“I feel like my experience on the facilities side of education, knowing that you’re always remodeling buildings or looking at buildings, that my experience could benefit as a board member,” she said.
East Bernstadt Independent’s board, meanwhile, now has a teacher’s voice. Sandra Smith, who works in another district, said she was surprised to learn there were no educators on her local board, and decided to contribute. She’s not intimidated by the current academic changes, since she has dealt with them as a teacher.
“I’m more intimidated going into a new situation where maybe there are preconceived notions of a teacher coming in and wanting to change everything – but that’s not it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to go in and see if I could help as far as giving my opinion on things from an educational point of view.”
Retired 34-year teacher and new Elliott County board member Nancy White, who also was a cheerleading sponsor and involved “in tons” of extracurricular activities, echoed Smith’s thoughts.
“I knew as a teacher I had insight that maybe others did not have,” she said.
While he hasn’t worked in schools, Andy Stone, a new board member in Bardstown Independent Schools, said he has overseen the construction of new movie theaters that he owns and operates, and looks forward to sharing that expertise on the board.
“I just thought it would be good to give back to the community and I’m excited and interested in some of the school expansion plans as far as building a new high school. I think I could lend my hand to that and provide some insights,” he said.
Other motivators were intensely local, as diverse as the districts the new board members will serve.
Karen Boling, who is joining the Ohio County board, said the district has experienced turmoil for the past eight years that is now beginning to subside, and she wants to help continue “to climb back up” and make the schools “more a part of the community.”
“I want what’s best for our children. I think with the new superintendent and we’ve got two new members on the board, I think we can do that,” she said.
Another new board member in Clark County, Michael McGowan, said he got involved because he wants what’s best for his and other children. But he also said he wants to slow down the district’s school merger.
“I think it needs to be better planned out. I don’t want to rush through it,” he said.
New Russell County board member Gerald Murray wants to see improvements – not closure – in the local elementary school his grandchildren attend. Robin Combs, a new board member in Clay County, is in a similar situation with her local elementary school.
“Somebody needed to step up for our community and our kids,” she said.
Shaun Thacker, who won a seat on the Newport Independent board, said he is looking for change in the district.
“We have people that’s been in the system for 10-15 years and it’s just, waste this money, waste that money. That has to stop,” he said.
In the wake of the November elections, more boards than usual saw multiple turnovers – in some cases, boards were introduced to three new members. Simmons, the newly elected Barren County member, and his two new compatriots sat together in a session for new board members during the Winter Symposium.
Kerry Dilley had a specific goal in mind in taking his seat on the Barren County board: He wants to forge closer ties with local industries.
“We need partnerships with local industry not only to raise funds for each individual school but to give an added curriculum or something for that school to hang their hat on,” he said.
Shelley Groce said now that her children have graduated high school and gone on to college, “I wanted to stay a part of the Barren County school district and help support them and just to serve my community, just in a general sense. I didn’t come in with an agenda, just to help support and serve.”
The Muhlenberg County school board, meanwhile, is welcoming its own Rip Van Winkle of sorts. Margaret Williams last served on the board in 1985-86, a time when the district absorbed the old Central City Independent school district and well before 1990’s education reform.
“It’s just 27 years later – there’s a generation that’s been educated during that time so it’s going to be a new world, a new awakening, as much for me as anybody else,” she said.
Williams, a retiree and one of three new board members in Muhlenberg County, said her goal is to “try to make a difference – something that will stand the test of time.”