Voice Recognition

KSBA News Article

Switching seats - Part 2

Carrie Ballinger

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 Sally Sugg, see Part 1 of this feature. To read about Carrie Ballinger, see Part 2 below.

Ballinger: ‘I can see both sides’  

Carrie Ballinger didn’t initially plan to be a superintendent. She was an elementary teacher in Madison County Schools in 2013 when she was appointed to the Rockcastle County school board where she lived and where her four children attended school.

“My initial reasoning was just to be involved as a parent and of course, being in education I felt like I had a lot to offer instructionally and just a different perspective,” Ballinger said.

As an educator, Ballinger was very familiar with the teaching and learning aspects of Kentucky school districts, but not the operations.

“When I came on the board I really saw all of the other aspects of running a school district, from operations, to school safety, to human resources, just seeing all of those and I really got interested in policy,” she said. “So I think being on the school board really propelled me to move myself forward professionally.”

After joining the board she pursed becoming an National Board Certified teacher, then pursed her principal certification and finally her superintendent certification.

Ballinger was an elementary school principal in Madison County when the director of student services came open in Rockcastle County Schools in 2019. In addition to advancing her career, the position was a chance to work in the district where her four children were in school and closer to home.

So, Ballinger resigned from the Rockcastle board in order to apply. She had served one year as student services director, when the superintendent of Rockcastle Schools retired. So, in the midst of the pandemic, Ballinger applied for the superintendent position – asking her former fellow board members to hire her.

And they did. She began as superintendent in July 2020. As student services director she was involved in the pandemic response, but now she was in charge.

“The first thing I did we created Task Force groups to address all of the different pieces. We had an instructional group, we had an operations group, health and safety. So, we just really tried to pull in all stakeholders from the community up into manageable chunks we did. Just to try to tackle how we were going to reopen school,” Ballinger said.

Carrie Ballinger and her staff prepare for the new school year.

When the pandemic began the district had only a few Chromebooks. In her first weeks on the job, Ballinger used federal funds to order enough devices for all 2,700 students.Then they had to train students and teachers to use them – all while students were only allowed to meet in groups of five or six at a time.

Then there was providing meals to families, deploying hot spots so that students could access the internet and complying with ever-changing guidance on how schools could operate.

Then in February, an ice storm hit. Across the county, 75 percent of residents were left without power – including Ballinger.

With the help of the Christian Appalachian Project and the county emergency management office, the district opened its middle school as a shelter. Ballinger stayed there for 10 days alongside her community.

“I always say that a school is more to a small rural community than just a place to provide education. We’re in the service business, and we’ll serve our community and in whatever capacity that is needed,” she said.

Despite the trials of this past school year, Ballinger said she had a “wonderful” first year as superintendent.

“It's been a real year of opportunity, I mean opportunity for everyone to grow. It’s been difficult and I know that it’s been extremely stressful on our staff and our students and our families, but if you can just kind of take a step back and look at the amount of growth that we have experienced, it really is amazing,” she said. “And we'll be better moving into next year.”

She credits her time as a board member for giving her the skills to navigate the tumultuous first year.

“It really helped me to understand how important it is for the school board and the superintendent to work together and to have a clear vision and mission for how, as a group, and as a board team, we want to move the district forward,” she said.

Carrie Ballinger testifying at a recent meeting of the legislature’s Budget Review Subcommittee on Education.

Even with the challenges, Ballinger said the district made progress last school year, including starting its first ever strategic planning process. And because of her board experience, Ballinger knew she wanted board members to be a part of the process from the beginning – instead of being handed a plan to vote on.  “I think that process has been very important for making certain that our administrative team and our school board are on the same page and we’re all moving in the same direction,” she said.

Ballinger said the way she communicates with the board is different than if she had never been on a school board. She understands what they need to know and the importance of apprising the board of what she is doing.

“I think I have that perspective of knowing what's important. You know, as a school board member, what information do they need to make solid decisions. I think I can see both sides, I can relate as a board member and then I can relate as an administrator,” she said.

Ballinger sends the board members weekly email updates, but also includes the things she has done that week that apply to the superintendent effectiveness standards and the goals the board has set – that way the board is able to track her progress throughout the year – not just when it’s time for the superintendent evaluation.

“Their responsibility is to make certain that I’m accountable as a superintendent that I am being that strategic leader and that instructional leader,” she said. “And so this allows me the opportunity to communicate that with them, but had I not been on the other side, I don’t know that I would have seen that as important.”

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