Guest Editorial: Despite budget crisis, controversy, school district will continue to raise the bar

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By Mark Cleveland

I will not discuss the details of the allegations against me (I am not even sure exactly what they were) as the grand jury has made its findings. I do adamantly disagree with the allegations, assertions and attacks on my character and behavior. My responsibility has been and continues to be what’s best for kids – often that means we have to change how we do business – change is hard and it is human nature to resist change because we all become comfortable in how we do things. That does not mean that people who have lived and worked in Owen County schools are not caring people and did not work hard – the world has changed and we have to change how we do business in public schools. That’s not easy and I’m sure there are times when I have made mistakes in trying to affect change, but I truly am committed and passionate in trying to improve our schools.

Owen County children deserve the same opportunity as children any place in Kentucky.

Owen County children deserve good facilities like the high school that has been built since I came here and the new middle school currently under construction and the improvements we’ve made by securing such grants as Reading First, Early Reading First, Dropout Prevention. Those grants have run their courses and we stand to lose in excess of $500,000. Still we are seeking other grants to help fulfill our mission and help defray local cost.

Owen County taxpayers deserve good financial management, which has been the case since I’ve been here. And to that point, that’s a large part of the stress, anxiety and agitation that is going on right now. I understand that there are people who are threatened at the prospect of losing their job, or having their salaries cut. Our management team and the board are faced with no good choices since the General Assembly has not finalized a budget, but we know different versions that had been proposed do include cuts to the basic SEEK funding. There is no way that this district can avoid making some hard choices. But at this time, as the News-Herald has reported, several options are under consideration – none of them are easy.

Owen County should be able to compete for federal funds like other school systems, something that we’ve been able to do successfully since I came with such grants as Reading First as well as securing grants from such programs as North Key and then fighting vigorously to make sure we received our fair portion of those grants. We had help with KDE in the form of the Highly Skilled Educators Program, even before we technically qualified for such.

Owen County has made progress in raising student achievement, but it has a long way to go: OCHS is on top of KCCT test scores with respect to surrounding districts, but our ACT scores are questionable. That staff is working their fingers to the bone trying to come up with solutions.

The middle school ranks just about in the middle of the pack compared to other middle schools, but we have been hovering right around the assistance line for the past several years. We need to show steady progress and again, teachers are working extremely hard.

The primary and elementary schools really embraced the Reading First program and I think we will see big dividends in student achievement in the immediate future, but we still have concerns about meeting No Child Left Behind expectations. Those schools have had transitional moments lately, but we have to be diligent about our expectations.

We have had Governor’s Scholars and National Merit Finalists and State Civic Award winners.  Owen County’s Mary Kennedy ranked second in CATS testing.

We are one of the few school districts that has student representation on our board of education. We brought those folks back a year ago to tell us what had worked in preparing them for life after school, and they collectively told us we need to raise our level of expectations for students. That is powerful information and can be disconcerting to a teacher or administrator who is working their backside off only to know that their best is possibly not good enough. We are working so hard to improve in that area.

We have had the improvement in our test scores but we have also raised the level of expectations of both our teachers and students. These improvements have come about because there were many teachers, administrators and staff who have risen to the challenge of improving education in this county.

Amid all the negative finger-pointing and innuendoes, we will continue to “raise the bar.”

Mark Cleveland

Owen County Schools Superintendent