Curtis accustomed to process

Friday, September 5, 2008
Stan Curtis reads to children in the classroom.

Dr. Stan Curtis is not unfamiliar with the polite mayhem that is the annual school budget hearing process.

"I've been through it before," Marshall County's director of schools says.

Curtis says that for the last five or six years Maury County, where he was principal of Hampshire Unit School prior to assuming his new post in mid April, did not pass a budget until Oct. 1. One year they came close to shutting down the schools before a compromise was reached.

It is a scenario Curtis does not wish to see repeated here in Marshall County.

"Our decisions affect kids' lives," Curtis says. "I'm hoping we can work together to make good decisions. When you go through tough economic times we're going to have to look at everything -- a long hard look at everything we do. We don't want to spend frivolously, but we don't want to cut anything academically."

Even as the Marshall County School Board agreed earlier this week to nearly half a million dollars in cuts to its proposed 2008-'09 budget, Curtis warns that schools here continue to face tough choices. Should they try to make do with fewer textbooks? Fewer computers? Fewer teachers?

One proposal that drew considerable attention -- much of it negative -- was a plan to halt school bus service after the first of the year.

"We will live within our means," Curtis promises. "My job is to stay within their (the school board's) budget. We will find a way."

Lists of the board of education's central office employees have been circulating in the community in recent weeks, provoking surprise in some quarters at the number of people working there and the level of some of their salaries.

"People think we're top heavy," Curtis says.

He points out that Marshall County actually has fewer employees in the central office than the state's BEP (Basic Education Program) allows, "and our supervisors' pay scales are lower than the rest of the state."

In Marshall County, a starting teacher with a bachelor's degree is paid around $34,000 per year, placing it 44th out of the state's 136 school districts. Teachers with more experience and better degrees rank lower in the state comparison: about 50th or 60th out of 136.

"I want this to be a good school system," says Curtis. "I think we can be in the top 10 in the state."

Curtis says he is pleased that the majority of students here have test scores equal to or better than the state average. He explains that under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, schools and school districts are measured on whether students meet performance benchmarks in math, reading and attendance for grades three through eight, as well as math, English and graduation rates for high schools. Schools that miss one or more benchmarks for one year are classified as target schools.

The act includes a total of 66 sub-categories. Marshall County did not fail in any of them in its most recent assessment. The high school graduation rate locally is around 88 percent, which Curtis calls "a pretty good rate."

In some districts around the state the graduation rate is as low as 75 percent to 80 percent.

"We made progress with every standard -- that's pretty phenomenal," says Curtis. "Marshall County's got some excellent educators. It's unbelievable what they've been able to accomplish."

Curtis recently made a presentation about Marshall County schools to an industry thinking of locating here, something he says he would like to do more of.

"I'd love to go recruit industry," he says.

He recalls that when Nissan was considering moving its headquarters to Williamson County, company officials made inquiries about the schools there. Williamson County has three high schools on the High Priority list because of missing NCLB benchmarks.

Obviously, other factors also influenced Nissan's ultimate decision to locate elsewhere. But Curtis has publicly stressed the importance of education in attracting new industry.

While Marshall County has measured up well thus far under NCLB requirements, Curtis insists there is no room for complacency. "A lot of things are coming down that we've got to comply with," he says.

Tennessee is the latest of 30 states to join the American Diploma Project. The ADP network gives states a blueprint for making school standards more rigorous and bringing graduation requirements more in line with the demands of both college and the workplace.

It means that, starting with this year's eighth graders, students will need 22 credits to graduate from high school, instead of the present 20. They will be required to have an upper level math credit and an extra science credit, as well.

"It's challenging," Curtis says of the new, higher standards.

Curtis contends that meeting those ADP requirements means Marshall County will have to recruit more and better math and science teachers -- and be willing to pay them.

He's confident, however, that the new standards can be met. One of the most important factors, he insists, is already in place.

"Our most valuable asset," he says, "is the people that are here."