Voice Recognition

KSBA News Article

2024 Kentucky Board Member of the Year

Mike Waller 2024 board member of the year

The Ultimate team player 
Henderson County chair named 2024 Kentucky School Board Member of the Year 

Kentucky School Advocate
June 2024

By Josh Shoulta
Staff writer

“I kinda feel like a long-tailed cat at a rocking chair contest,” Mike Waller said with a nervous laugh. 

On stage in a packed hotel ballroom, in front of nearly 1,000 school board members, administrators and guests, he had just been named the 2024 Kentucky School Board Member of the Year (BMOY), earning him the first of two standing ovations. 

As a Henderson County Schools board member of more than 30 years, many of those as chair, Waller is accustomed to crowds. A practiced parliamentarian, he has presided over countless meetings and the major decisions that come with them. But it is from his board seat where he could often dodge being the focus of the attention himself and, instead, direct it towards the people and programs that mean so much to him. 

Waller accepted BMOY honors on behalf of more than 1,000 classified and certified Henderson County employees before heaping praise on each of his board team colleagues, including the attorney, superintendent and executive assistant. He then turned his attention to his family, many of whom were seated in the front row. He choked up slightly when thanking his wife of nearly 50 years. 

“Without the efforts and support of my family, I couldn’t do what I need to do and want to do.” 

Mike Waller (back row, third from left) and other members of the Henderson City High School baseball team in 1972. Photo: Henderson County SchoolsIt is at that intersection of duty and passion where Waller has found a sweet spot as an effective leader and public servant. Despite a natural gravitation towards leadership, Waller has never lost sight of the power of teamwork in every aspect of his life – a mentality he can trace back to the baseball field of his youth. 

“Since I was 9 years old, throughout my elementary school, high school, college and professional careers, teams have been essential to me,” Waller said.

He explained that during the course of his manufacturing career, he would post his definition of “team” in every breakroom, lunchroom and conference room at the plant. 

“Two or more people with complementary skills working together to accomplish agreed upon goals and objectives with mutual accountability,” he recalled. 

While he retired from the Accuride Corporation in 2020, after 45 years, he still considers himself a part of two very important teams: his family and Henderson County Schools. 

KSBA’s BMOY award was established in 2021 to honor exemplary service of association members on their local boards and to celebrate the critical roles school boards play in the advancement of public education. The award is presented to an individual who, among other things, “exemplifies leadership best practices, passionately advocates for needs of his/her district and public education, demonstrates the highest ethical standards, celebrates the values of public service, exhibits a keen understanding of district governance and operations.”

Henderson County Schools board member Mike Waller accepts the 2024 BMOY Award at KSBA’s Annual Conference. From left: KSBA Executive Director Kerri Schelling, KSBA President-elect Pamela Morehead, Waller, American Fidelity State Managers Rebecca Combs and Kate Mathis“Mike certainly meets those standards of excellence and then some,” said KSBA Executive Director Kerri Schelling. “If you know Mike, or at least know of him, it should have come as no surprise that he was chosen as this year’s winner.”

Honorees are selected annually by a panel of former KSBA presidents and award winners, the competition always steep and the nominees always deserving, Schelling added. 

American Fidelity, a longtime KSBA affiliate member, has sponsored the award since its inception three years ago. As a perk, each award winner earns free registration at the next year’s Annual Conference for his or her entire board team. 

“It is our hope that recognition like BMOY is inspirational to board teams across the commonwealth and that inspiration can only serve to benefit Kentucky public schools,” said American Fidelity State Manager Rebecca Combs.

Deep roots, strong branches
Waller was born in New York City. His father, an NCO in the United States Army, was stationed at various posts in Germany, Japan, Texas, New Jersey and Taiwan. Finally settling in his mother’s hometown of Henderson, Waller was enrolled in Henderson Independent Schools, eventually graduating from Henderson City High School in 1973. The independent district merged with Henderson County just a few years later. 

In 1975, Waller married his wife, Sally, a Henderson County graduate, and began a successful career with the Accuride Corporation that would span five decades. He started as an engineering assistant for the wheel manufacturing facility in Henderson, eventually working h is way up to director of operations, where he oversaw the entire plant. 

Waller was first elected to his school board seat in 1989. Except for one unsuccessful reelection bid, he has served ever since. 

Waller and other district leaders take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of Spottsville Elementary School in 2018. 
Photo: Henderson County Schools
All three of Waller’s children are Henderson County products. His son-in-law, Wesley Smith, also serves on the Henderson County board. His grandchildren are enrolled in the district, the oldest graduating from high school this past May. Seeing multiple generations of his family benefit and thrive just personalized what Waller already knew to be true. 

“We have a school district that’s outstanding and caters to just about every aspect of a well-rounded individual,” Waller said.  

He also saw that success firsthand as manager of a Henderson-based employer. Accuride began to hire more Henderson County graduates, a strategic move around 2008 that eventually contributed to increased production at the plant, lower employee attrition and an exemplary safety record.

“By the time I retired, we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-93% of our workforce that were Henderson County High School graduates.”

In 2014, under Waller’s leadership, Accuride received the coveted Manufacturers Association Award of Excellence, cementing its reputation as a global manufacturing leader. 

“It’s a direct result of the Henderson folks we had, a majority being Henderson County graduates,” he said.

Change agent
Waller’s involvement with the district predates his time on the board, something that did not let up once elected. Over the years he coached football, basketball and baseball teams. He served on the Move to Improve committee and as an elementary PTA president. He helped to coordinate volunteers and fundraising for school activities. At the state level, he was a member of the Local School Board Advisory Council appointed by Governor Brereton Jones. 

Waller, aboard his tractor, tills space for the long jump pit at South Middle School.During Waller’s tenure on the board, Henderson County has surpassed many important milestones. The district has built new schools across the county, launched successful pre-K and full-day kindergarten programs and forged an Early College Program partnership with nearby Henderson Community College. Waller has been involved with the hiring of half a dozen superintendents, the passage of a Nickel Tax and prioritization of Career and Technical Education programming. 

That success can be attributed, in part, to effective governance by the entire board team – a team that often looks to Waller as an unofficial captain. 

“His advice was gold,” said former Henderson County school board member Lisa Baird, who retired in 2020. “Every board should have a historian like Mike because often you don’t understand why things were done or policies made and that explanation that came from Mike made it all so clear.”

Waller can regularly be found engaging with students in the classroom and attending school events. Any time a new facility project is under way, the district can count on Waller to roll up his sleeves, literally.

“Mr. Waller recently tilled up an area on the South Middle School field for the long jump pit using his own equipment,” said Henderson County Executive Assistant to the Superintendent Robin Newton. “Just another great example of his volunteerism beyond his board service.”

Waller visits a kindergarten class at Jefferson Elementary School. Adults (left to right): Sheryl Berlin, Bob Lawson, Gwen Courtney, Crissy Sandefur, Bethany Lander and Mike Waller. Photo: Henderson County Schools

Henderson County’s core values are prominently displayed throughout the district and deeply embedded in the culture of the schools. One can find them emblazoned largely across the wall in the central office conference room. Those who serve closely with Waller see his legacy as a powerful reflection of those values.

“He embodies all the district’s seven core values, but the one that he demonstrates most is core value #7: be the change agent,” said Henderson County Schools Superintendent Bob Lawson. “He has changed the trajectory of the lives of thousands of students and, in turn, changed the trajectory of our great community.” 

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