By Karen Hall
Interviews of four candidates for the director of schools job went according to plan Saturday, with all applicants confidently answering the same set of questions.
Before they got their chance to appear one by one in front of board members, the candidates were given legal pads and sharp yellow pencils and sat down for 30 minutes to write answers to chairman Mike Keny's secret questions: "What process to you typically follow to make a decision about a plan of action?" and "Briefly describe your leadership skills in implementing such a plan."
The applicants drew for interview times, and first up was William Royal, currently principal of Rogersville Middle School in Rogersville, Tenn., the county seat of Hawkins County in the far northeast of the state.
"Financials are my strength," said Royal. "I'm a numbers guy."
Royal has worked in other countries and experienced life as a minority. He and his wife and two children were in the Middle East on 9/11.
"I was a minority parent and also a special education parent," Royal said. "I draw on those experiences."
"How would you handle those who don't want to follow your direction?" asked board member Ann Tears.
"We'd have to have a hard discussion if they need to be in the Marshall County schools," Royal answered. "Sometimes you have to have bold conversations."
He's worked extensively with budgets, and said he was good at communicating and justifying what was in a budget, as well as being frugal: "I'd turn those pennies into copper wire."
Royal applauded school board members for their "very public process" of choosing a new director, and said, "You're a forward-thinking, progressive board."
Next up was Marshall County's own Jackie Abernathy.
"I've been here all my life," she said. "I've worked in this system for 35 years. I have two grandchildren in it now, and two more will be in it later. I have a broad network of contacts, and I have the knowledge, ability and desire. I know things can turn around."
Abernathy promised to be visible and available, with an open-door policy for the director's office.
"I pledge to you to keep you informed," she said to board members.
"I believe in academics first," Abernathy said, "But extra curricular activities enhance the educational experience. I think they are essential."
She emphasized the importance of the earliest grades.
"K through three are vital," she said. "We need the strongest teachers there." Already Marshall County has teachers scoring ones and twos on their assessments, and those are the ones Abernathy would like to see mentoring their lower-scoring colleagues.
Her interview finished with six minutes to spare, and Abernathy wrapped up her hour and a half by stating, "Fiscal responsibility, elementary education and communication would be my top three."
After the lunch break, Dr. Larry Miller took his place in the hot seat.
"Communication is the key," he said, recommending a revival of the teachers' advisory council, as well as starting a students' advisory council.
"Students can give a great deal of insight," he said.
"I would keep all avenues of communication open," Miller said. "My door is always open." He promised a weekly director's report to board members.
Like Abernathy, Miller was aware of the excellence of some of Marshall County's teachers.
"We have 35 teachers considered Level 5 teachers, and 10 to 15 who are Level 4," he said. "That's significantly above average. We need to take advantage of them as a resource."
As for his financial experience, Miller said he had been working in the Central Office as interim assistant director for nine months, and said it had been "very enlightening." He was also the superintendent of Oneida Special School District from 1987-1991.
"I've always believed in being a lifelong learner," Miller said.
In conclusion, Miller said, "I have a sincere interest in the Marshall County school system. You were a godsend to me 19 years ago, and I would appreciate the opportunity to be your director."
Last but definitely not least was Dr. Paul Tisdale who retired from the post of superintendent of the Biloxi Public Schools in June 2011, and since then has been operating his own consulting company, training principals to do their jobs better.
He was the only one who did not get through all the prepared questions before the time was up, but the answers he did give were complete and often thought provoking.
"How will you handle people who don't follow your direction?" asked Tears.
Tisdale explained that failure to follow directions could be because the person didn't know what they were asked to do, couldn't do what they were asked to do, or didn't want to do what they were asked to do.
The first two could be solved by more training, but the third would cause him to say, "I don't know how you can continue to work here."
He promised to be available to everyone, and to meet frequently with all staff members.
In Biloxi, Tisdale said, they had 30 minutes for citizens' comments at every board meeting, limited to five minutes per person.
"Some nights it was a real adventure," he exclaimed, though he recommended the practice, stating, "You have everything to gain and nothing to lose - nobody can say they didn't have an opportunity to be heard."
"I want to be somewhere I can make a difference," Tisdale concluded as time ran out. "My best days are ahead," he told board members as they wrapped up an intensive day's work.