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Op-Ed: Appreciate Your Local School Board this Month

WANTED. Dedicated, conscientious, passionate individuals to serve on education-related board. Hours can be long; pay is low. Frequent meetings and events. Public scrutiny can be intense; criticism and complaints are frequent. Praise is rare. Duties include setting policy, overseeing finances and key personnel and impacting and improving the lives of children and young adults. Ultimately answers to the voters. Extremely rewarding.

If this fictitious help wanted ad for a public school board member appeared in the newspaper, I’m not sure many people would apply. And while the work can be rewarding, serving on a school board can be difficult, time consuming and at times even frustrating. The public doesn’t fully understand or frankly appreciate the tremendous responsibility bestowed upon a local board of education.

January is School Board Recognition Month in Kentucky, and I urge everyone in Newport, across Northern Kentucky, and throughout the Commonwealth to join me in expressing their appreciation and gratitude to the members of your local school board.

At the Newport Independent School District, I work with and for a board that regularly deals with tremendous challenges and adversity yet has led our administration, teachers, staff and students in achieving success in the classroom, in engaging the community and in managing ever shrinking budgets – all for just $3,000 or less a year.

The Newport Board of Education is a diverse, focused and energetic board. The members are:

  • Chairwoman Ramona Malone, a Senior Claims Specialist who has served for nearly seven years.

  • Vice Chairwoman Dr. Julie Smith Morrow, who has worked for and led non-profits as well as serving as a university researcher and instructor and has served more than eight years.

  • Melissa Sheffel, who works as a communications and public relations consultant and has served more than five years.

  • Theresa Miller, who is retired from the federal government and has served more than three years.

  • Matt Scott, who works in the finance industry and has served nearly three years.

I’m often  inspired by how our board confronts the challenges they regularly face and overcome as members of the Newport Board of Education.

Ninety-percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning they are living in poverty; a large number receive breakfast, lunch and a take home snack every day. Eight percent of our students are homeless and a growing number do not speak English as a first language.

Through circumstances out of their control a vast majority of our students come from low-income environments that which present situations that can make learning, paying attention and maintaining solid attendance more difficult.

Yet our students continue to achieve. In the past four years our dropout rate has been significantly reduced while also meeting the graduation rate targets set by the department of education.  

Data in the 2014-15 School Report Card from The Kentucky Department of Education shows that Newport High School was just one of 23 high schools in the state labeled a “High Progress School”, meaning that the school met its academic goals and placed in the top 10 percent of schools that showed improvement. A year earlier, the Department of Education labeled Newport Intermediate School a "High Progress School" and the district was labeled a "High Progress District."

A major accomplishment came in the area of College and Career Readiness. Newport High School’s scores jumped from 63.4 to 85.5, an increase of 22.1 points, putting Newport as the fourth best performing high school in Northern Kentucky in terms of College and Career Readiness.

Regarding the school district’s finances, even in the face of continuing state budget cuts, the board working with our finance department has shown to be outstanding stewards of the public’s money.

Kentucky ranks 10th worst in the country in decline of per-student funding of 12.1 percent since 2008. But despite the cuts, Newport is one of the few districts in the state that in the last four years has not taken an automatic 4%  property tax increase that school districts are permitted under state law.

And by reducing the number of school district buildings from six to four, the board has saved additional funding.

In the past few years Newport Independent Schools has become a leader in educational technology. Beginning in the Spring of 2016 students 9-12 will receive a district laptop (Macbook) while students in grades 3-8th will have a 1-1 iPad. Student’s K-2 will have approximately 6 iPads or more in every classroom.

This year our board partnered with our city to offer a free early reading supplement program called Footsteps2Brilliance  to any child in the city of Newport. In the past six months as a result of this effort our Newport children have read approximately seventy thousand books and have been exposed to over 22 million words.

Serving on the board of education is not job everyone would want, but it’s one our board does very, very well.

Kelly Middleton is Superintendent of The Newport Independent School District

Photo: Newport Board of Education meeting (RCN file)