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In Conversation With ... Leon Mooneyhan

Leon Mooneyhan

Kentucky School Advocate
May 2022

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

After 53 years in public education, Leon Mooneyhan will retire this fall. Over the course of his career, he’s been a teacher, superintendent of two Kentucky school districts, and, for the last 18 years, CEO of the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative. Here, he reflects on his career and the changes he’s seen.

Q. Over your career, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in public education?    

A. 
The changes made to deal with the pandemic. No other event has so greatly impacted how we teach students, deal with social/emotional issues and all of the other problems that as a society we’ve encountered. The changes are monumental, and I’m so proud of educators, and teachers certainly, for finding ways to operate remotely or with part of the class in-person. It’s been remarkable and a tribute to all educators who hung in there. Then, when students came back to the classroom, they came forward with ways to help students recover from social, emotional and learning loss. They didn’t say, ‘We can't do this.’ They said, ‘No, we’re gonna find a way to do this.’

Q. You were a superintendent when districts sued the state over the lack of public education funding which led to the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Rose v. Council for Better Education. What was that like at the time?  

A. 
Sixty-six districts out of 175 plus districts were involved in the lawsuit. It was because the playing field for districts was not equal. Areas of high property values generated more tax revenue than areas with low property values. I was superintendent of Fulton County Schools at the time and had the support of our board and the community. After the Supreme Court made the final ruling, it felt like that this is a game changer. It was the biggest, I guess, change, if not in the history of public education in Kentucky, certainly in the past 50 years.  

Q. A few years ago, school districts closed and thousands of teachers came to Frankfort to demonstrate about changes to their pensions. I’m told that a similar thing happened when you were the superintendent of Shelby County Schools.

A.
It was an issue with their insurance back then. I was involved and supportive of our local education association. There was a rally at the capitol. We had full busload coming from Shelby County to demonstrate our support and I rode the bus with our teachers. I’ve never seen the Capitol so inundated with teachers and buses. Ultimately, the General Assembly did back off on some significant changes they were going to make.

Q. You’re also involved in 3KT. Can you explain the group and how it was started?

A.
It was started about 20 years ago. I was Shelby County superintendent. I worked with Alicia Sells, who was then KSBA’s director of governmental relations. The idea of 3KT was that KSBA, KASA and KASS could come together and look at pieces of legislation. The three education associations might not agree on all of them, but we could agree on most of them, and what changes to ask for some, so legislators would know that these three organizations were supporting pieces of legislation or had concerns about them. It was an effort to make the three associations have more impact and it has continued. All three are very active, looking at ways that they can come together to be supportive.  

Q. How often do the three agree on issues?  

A.
It is a very high percentage. This last session, I don’t know if there were any pieces that the group didn't come to consensus on – maybe a few but certainly not on major pieces. That’s just increased over the years as the associations have worked more closely together.

Q. You’ve been CEO of OVEC for almost 18 years. Tell me about how the role of co-ops has changed over your career and during your time as CEO.

A. 
OVEC is the only cooperative that also does early childhood education and we operate Head Start programs in about 10 school districts. So that is a large operation; our co-op will have 200 plus employees and the majority are Head Start.

The role of a co-op is to listen to our districts and, within our means, provide whatever service the district needs. OVEC is focused mostly on academic or instructional – the learning part. We provide professional development opportunities for our districts and there’s no charge for some, but if we do charge we can do it in an economical way. We try to provide services in the most cost-effective manner to meet the districts’ needs.

Then-Kentucky Association of School Administrators President Phyllis O’Neal presents Leon Mooneyhan with the association’s 2010 Distinguished Service Award. Provided by KASA.

 

Q. Does anything stand out as far as a shift in needs or increase in needs?A
. What we’ve seen is a shift to a more structured approach. One thing districts really like is our role group meetings. We’ll have groups for principals – even breaking it down to elementary or high school – counselors, school psychologists, food service, etc. Each role group has a district leader and an OVEC staff member. The groups discuss issues related to their jobs. We meet in-person and virtually.

Q. Have you seen any change in demand for types of trainings?

A. 
We recently received a federal school safety grant, which has in the last several years become a popular topic for trainings. We had experts train principals on issues related to school safety. Maximizing technology for student learning has also been a popular topic, even more popular because there was a whole lot more use during the pandemic.

Q. You have about five months before you retire in September and hand over the reins to Jason Adkins. Is this a time for you to mentor him?  

A. 
We’re already starting that process. He develops questions about areas that he’s not as familiar with and we try to meet every day or every other day and address two to three of his questions. I’m going to get his opinion on some decisions we have to make and recommendations I need to make to the board. I had recommended to the board that we have a period of time where we could work together. I think it’ll make for a smoother transition.

Q. But Jason’s not new to OVEC, right?

A.
He came to OVEC when he was still a graduate student. He attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to earn his master of divinity but applied for a job as a part-time grant writer here. He is a natural writer, great communicator, and has been very successful. His grant writing has generated $125 million in grants to OVEC. He’s an outstanding individual and we’ve had a close relationship. Development will still be a part of his job.

Q. What one thing would you change about Kentucky public education today?

A. 
It is important to get all Kentuckians on the same page regarding the importance of education, not only for the love of learning, but to have a good livelihood and choices of education, whether it be career or technical. Education can change anyone’s trajectory in life. I think we ought to see each student as a diamond in the rough. No matter their circumstances, there’s always that potential to help all of our students achieve their very best, and find their place in society.

Q. As a school superintendent, you worked with school board members to make major improvements, not just for your district but for Kentucky education. Do you have any advice for local school board members?

A. 
As a school board member, or as a superintendent, we need to figure out what is best for all students. We don’t want to do something that doesn’t have equal benefit or provide the same opportunities in different ways. I like the way that KSBA characterizes it as the board “team,” which includes the board and superintendent. That’s the way it happened for me in Shelby County. Some of my best memories are working with school board members, not that we agreed on every single issue. The last thing board members want to be is a rubber stamp for the superintendent. So superintendents need to make sure all the issues are vetted. I wanted every board member who had something to say on an issue to have a chance to make their point so all sides were presented. I think the system works because there is a good balance of responsibilities between board members and the superintendent. They are a team, and just because we don’t agree on every single issue, that’s not bad.  

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