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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Calming the rough waters at Highland

Friday, October 12, 2012

In the fall of 2010, James Floyd became superintendent of Highland Schools, replacing Ronnie Brogdon, the legendary, long-time superintendent who retired.

After reading Tammy Curtis' article about Floyd's arrival in August 2010, I jokingly asked her how long she thought he would last. Floyd acknowledged in the Villager Journal article it was "tough coming in behind Brogdan." He went on to talk about his intentions to change the way students are taught, relying more on technology and new methods of learning. He added he would "look at the strengths of the staff and try to get them paired up with job assignments" that fit his goal of speeding up the learning process.

I suspected, from the article, the school board or Floyd or both had concluded things needed to be shaken up in the school system -- that staff members may have gotten too comfortable in their roles and students were not being challenged enough. Bringing about change is never easy, and Floyd's tenure, which ended on Sept. 26 with his retirement, was a stormy journey.

Judging from feedback our reporters received, Floyd quickly began cleaning house. People who had worked in the school system for years found their roles changing. Many felt pressured to move on, and others were terminated.

After awhile, there was talk about Floyd's love of travel, attending conferences on the district's dime.

By the time the school district's 2011 financial audit was released, teachers, parents and others were openly criticizing the superintendent and the school board for creating turmoil.

When the audit questioned the lack of proper documentation for some of Floyd's meals and travel related expenses, the floodgates opened. School board meetings were suddenly packed with people questioning the board's oversight of Floyd, illegal secret meetings and special meetings called with little or no notice.

While Floyd indicated he reimbursed the district $809 for a trip to Las Vegas, to a convention he could not prove he attended, he never publically addressed the issue in public.

As the school year wound down, at least eight staff members resigned, including long-time girl's basketball coach Harlan Davis, who moved on to Pocahontas -- but not before blasting the school board and Floyd for throwing aside long established Highland tradition, and making the district a hostile workplace, rather than a welcoming one.

When Areawide Media newspapers ran a poll asking whether Floyd should be investigated for questionable school travel, it produced 642 "votes," which is probably a record. 68 percent of respondents said "yes" to an investigation, 31 percent "no."

While things settled down over the summer, there was fallout in September, when board president Donna Shaw was ousted in a school board election. Floyd quickly followed, announcing his retirement.

Many Highland and Sharp County residents have told me they are saddened at the controversy in what has been a stong school system. It is sad.

I am sure Shaw ran for the school board to work to improve education, not to make people mad.

Floyd did some good things during his two years as Superintendent. Facilities were improved and some curriculum was changed. He was involved in obtaining the state grant that made Highland one of the first Arkansas schools to start a New Tech program this school year. The program follows Floyd's desire, described in that 2010 article, to move learning out of the traditional classroom to learning by creative thinking and teamwork.

Looking to the future, Highland choose two new leaders -- Superintendent Tracy Webb and Assistant Superintendent Clint Shackleford -- who have roots that go back to being educated in the school system, and returning to teach in it.

I have mentioned "long-time" employees several times in this column. In an interview, new Highland Superintendent Tracy Webb, who had been elementary principal and assistant superintendent, mentioned she treasurers teachers who taught her, who are still in the school system. Being a "long-time employee" will apparently not automatically be considered a bad thing under her leadership.

Webb also indicated that she hopes the district can better communicate with the public. Floyd was often criticized for being arrogrant and aloof, and Shaw sometimes did not seem to understand the concepts of open meetings and the public's right to know.

Webb indicated in our recent interview that reports of school changes and actions spread like wildfire, and are often not accurate. She appears to realize the public should be welcomed to meetings, business should take place in the light of day, and it is the district's responsibility to let people know what is happening, and address misunderstandings.

Let's hope the Highland School District is regrouping, and smoother sailing is ahead.