Voice Recognition

KSBA News Article

Switching seats - Part 1

Sally Sugg

Kentucky School Advocate
August 2021

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer

Board members and superintendents have very different roles in Kentucky’s public schools. The elected board members hire the superintendent to oversee the day-to-day operations of the district. Board members focus on policy, governance and budget to guide the administration of the district.

There are few people who have served in both of these roles. Two of them are superintendents starting their second school year leading their districts.

Shelby County Superintendent Sally Sugg served four years on the Henderson County school board before becoming superintendent, and Rockcastle County Superintendent Carrie Ballinger served on the Rockcastle County board for six years before becoming the district’s director of student services and then superintendent.

Both cite their board experience as helping them become better leaders. To read about Carrie Ballinger, see Part 2 of this feature. To read about Sally Sugg, see Part 2 below.

Sugg: ‘Thinking like a board member’  

When an ambulance is called to a Shelby County school, Superintendent Sally Sugg quickly finds out what’s going on and whether everyone is safe – then she notifies the board members.

“If they’re in the grocery store, or somewhere going about their day, and they hear about it or if they drive by and they see an ambulance at school, of course, the first thing that they go to is student safety,” she said.

Sugg believes her experience as a Henderson County school member has made her a better superintendent.

“Nearly every day when I'm making decisions, or talking to a group, I’m also thinking like a board member,” she said.

Even though board members focus on higher lever decision-making for the district, they still need to know what’s going on – so she often thinks to herself, “what kind of information would a board member need to have or know when they go to the grocery store and one of their constituents stops them in the frozen foods and asks them a question?” she said.

Sugg joined the Henderson County board in 2015 after retiring from a long career that included serving as Shelby County Schools assistant superintendent, associate commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Education and principal of Henderson County High School.

Sally Sugg works with staff ahead of the new school year.

Sugg decided to run for the seat because she was concerned that there wasn’t an educator on the board and out of a concern about the facilities. As principal, she walked through a foyer dotted with buckets catching rainwater from the leaky roof.“There was also a new superintendent, and I wanted to partner with her to help guide the board,” she said.

Her path wasn’t easy, Sugg ran against a longtime member and another former educator who wanted the seat but she prevailed with two thirds of vote.

Being on the board wasn’t an easy ride either. When the board passed a much-needed nickel tax, an opposition group forced a vote and, though the district won, the outcome was tied up in court before the tax was implemented.

“Even though it was controversial, the Henderson County district is still enjoying the benefits of that nickel tax. We were able to as a team come together and show the community that it was necessary,” she said.

After the tax passed, the district has built an elementary school and renovated other buildings.

Sugg also made it her mission to combat the negativity about the district in the community.

“As a board member, you really have a responsibility to the community,” she said. “But I think you also have a responsibility to share the good things that are happening in your district.”

The board service also helped her learn about the bigger picture of running a district, for example she learned that budgets for schools and for the entire district were quite different.

“You always have to consider what the school district needs, but you also have to consider what the taxpayers can afford and what the community can sustain,” she said. “And so in a time when a lot of people are struggling financially, even though there are needs in the district you have to really weigh both.”

Sally Sugg and the Shelby Co. board members at 2021 graduation. 

But Sugg missed the daily interaction with students, so after one term she decided not to run again. Soon after, she accepted a job as the interim superintendent of West Point Independent which was struggling to stay afloat.Sugg drew on her experiences as a teacher, administrator and board member to guide the board as they wrangled with what do to.

“My board service helped me to think like a board member and to give them the information that they needed, so that they weren’t just operating on emotion,” she said. “In the end I had to help them see that financially, it wasn’t feasible to stay open, their kids were going to be better off with more opportunities if they merged with Hardin County.”

Though it was difficult to close down a 172-year-old school district, Sugg enjoyed serving as a superintendent and wanted to do it again – this time in Shelby County where she served as assistant superintendent in 2007-08.

When she applied in 2020, two of the board members, Brenda Jackson and Alan Phillips, were quite familiar to Sugg – they were on the board when she served as assistant superintendent and she often ran into them at KSBA events.

Sugg got the job and started her superintendency in the midst of a pandemic when guidance for school districts changed daily and administrators were struggling to figure out how to keep students safe in school.

Through it all, Sugg made sure the board was apprised of all the changes and latest guidance.

“The board had to make probably some of the toughest decisions last year that they ever will have to make, we hope,” she said. “I had to give them all the information, tell them what could possibly happen if they make this decision, what’s the downside if they make the other decision?”

Even through the pandemic, Sugg said the district was able to advance its strategic plan and start new initiatives.

“I really feel like we were successful in not only keeping everybody safe but also advancing academics in a time when a lot of people were just trying to treading water,” she said. “So I’m really, really fortunate that I have a great board and they work together and even when they disagree, they put student safety, health and achievement first.”

Though she hopes the new year will be more normal, Sugg believes that she will continue to draw upon her board service as she leads the district.  

“It really affects the way that I work. I wouldn't recommend it for everybody because you’ve got to step out of education for four years to run for the board, unless it’s a different district,” she said. “But I think I’ve been more successful because I have that perspective.”

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