By Madelynn Coldiron
For members of the Burgin Independent school board, there is no difference between school and community – not even a blurred dividing line. This may hold the secret to their longevity together, a term of joint service that is approaching a dozen years.
The five have been together since its “newbie” was elected more than 11 years ago, making it one of the longest-serving intact boards in Kentucky.
PHOTO: Burgin Independent Board of Education members from left bottom row, Donna Major (19 years), Priscilla Harris (12 years); top row, Robert Clark (27 years). Lynn Russell (17 years), and Keith Monson (24 years).
“We just have a love for our community and for our students,” said board Vice Chairman Keith Monson. “And our school system has such history. And I have so much respect for these guys. We all share the same goal, the same love for this place.”
Board member Donna Major called the 425-student, K-12 Burgin School “the heart of the community.”
Mutual trust and the lack of personal agendas are also major factors in the board’s ability to function smoothly, longtime Superintendent Richard Webb said.
“I completely trust them on any decision that we make and I think they completely trust me and we make it together – we try to do what’s best,” he said. “The second thing is, this is the most unusual board you’ll ever find in that they leave their personal agendas at home. Their agenda is the vision of what this school can be and should be, the same as it is with my principal and the teachers and the parents.”
The district was struggling in 1997-98, laboring under financial woes, dwindling enrollment and the threat of a merger with the Mercer County system. Four of the current members were serving then and now-board member Priscilla Harris also experienced the turmoil as one in the crowd of parents and others who jammed board meetings. That shared crisis helped strengthen their bonds, they say.
“I will never forget the night that we sat and had a board meeting in the concourse with well in excess of 100 people in there, taking community input on what to do with the school when we couldn’t make a contingency on our budget. That was trying times and that’s when everybody hunkered down,” said board Chairman Robert Clark who, with 23 years, is the longest-serving of the bunch.
Lynn Russell was relatively new to the board at that point and vividly recalls his baptism by fire: “The first couple of meetings I went to, we sat out there in the foyer and there were hundreds of people everywhere and I don’t think but 10 of them were our friends. And I made the comment to Mr. Clark, I said, ‘If all school board meetings are going to be like this, I’m not sure I want to be part of it.’ It was scary.”
The superintendent factor
Enter Webb, who was hired as superintendent to help dig the district out of its hole. Spend any time at all with the Burgin board team and it’s not long before the mutual admiration society manifests itself. Webb attributes the district’s now-smooth sailing to the board, while board members attribute it to him.
“I feel like at that time we were losing students, and that was a lot of our problem – our student enrollment was going down and Mr. Webb came in and we focused,” Monson said. “One of the problems was what we didn’t have, things we didn’t have. I think we focused on what we did have and that made it better.”
The district weathered the fiscal crisis and began building its reserves.
Webb in turn sings the board’s praises, saying, “… there’s nobody in education I respect more than these five.”
They will soon face a new challenge as Webb retires at the end of the school year.
No one could recall any serious rifts among board members, which does not mean they are exactly alike. The five different personality types give the board its strength, Clark said, because they offer different viewpoints.
“We may have different opinions about things, but we’ll talk about it in a reasonable manner and come up with a solution that’s for the benefit of the students,” Clark said.
Harris said the board has the ability to “agree to disagree and work past that and move on.”
That is tied to the individual members’ commitment to the school and consequently the community, which is bigger than any disagreement, Major said.
Russell said one of the biggest lessons he has learned in serving on this board is “to listen before you speak.
“Whether it be students or other board members, or the superintendent or parents, there’s always different opinions so you learn to listen to everybody and then kind of wade through what you have to do,” he said.
Harris said conflict also is minimized because Webb keeps board members in the loop “if there is something very controversial or troublesome brewing.”
The professional is personal
The five Burgin members know each other well, and not just from working together as a board. Three of them are Burgin graduates and all have children who attended the school.
“We have so much history together because all of our children came through the school,” Major said. “So even before I was on the board, I knew Priscilla’s little girls coming up and certainly Mr. Clark and Keith’s children because they were all close to my daughter’s age. So we just have so much history together that it makes for a good working relationship.”
A family attitude prevails through the whole school, Clark said. Its size makes for close-knit relationships, which carries over to the board, Harris said – it’s her favorite part of serving with her fellow board members.
“I pretty much know where all these people stand on any issue that might come up. And if it’s something difficult, I don’t live in fear that we can’t hash through it. We can work through it,” she said.