January 18, 2012The man hired as the newest superintendent of the North Harrison Community School Corp. hopes to bring stability to the school system that has seen five superintendents hired since 2007, with the last four of those being in the position for a relatively short period of time, compared to Monty Schneider who served as superintendent for 17 years.
D. John Thomas was hired Sept. 8 to succeed John G. Roeder, who took the helm in January 2010 and resigned right before the start of school in August.
D. John Thomas has been the superintendent of North Harrison Community School Corp. since Sept. 8. Photo by Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor
"Everybody I've met has been great," Thomas said during an interview early last month. "I've been in each building. It feels like home already."
Two main challenges face the new superintendent: getting the school corporation back into financial shape and improving the performance of its students.
Thomas, who turned 64 on Christmas Eve, appears to be taking the tasks in stride. After all, school work is not new for him.
Growing up in Taylorsville, Ky., Thomas attended a one-room schoolhouse. After graduating from high school in 1965, he earned a bachelor's degree in 1969 at the University of Kentucky, where he majored in political science with a minor in English.
"I was drafted the day after graduation," Thomas said, and spent the next two years in the Army serving in Vietnam.
Upon his return home, Thomas was hired to teach U.S. history, math and English in Switzerland County in Indiana.
"I always thought I wanted to be a teacher," he said.
But, after two years, he left the classroom to work for Goodyear.
During his time away from teaching, Thomas still was interested in education. He was elected to serve on the school board, which he did for one four-year term. He then wanted to return to teaching and was hired to teach agriculture, something he knew a lot about since he was raised on a farm.
Thomas spent three years in the classroom this time before he was named assistant principal for one year followed by spending the next 11 years as the principal. After that, he was hired as the superintendent.
Four years later, Thomas took the top position with the Cannelton School Corp. After four years there, he moved over to the superintendent's position in Pike County, where he retired from in September. He stayed in Petersburg during the week but traveled to his home in Carrollton, Ky., on weekends to be with his wife, Sandra.
He actually was a finalist for the superintendent position at North Harrison in 2009 but withdrew his application after he was indicted for allegedly failing to report child abuse at Pike Central High School. Thomas, who later was exonerated of the crime, did not want to leave his position under those circumstances, so he remained there until last September.
Thomas signed a five-year contract at North Harrison, which he called "the place to be for me."
One of his goals while at North Harrison is to achieve a "constant" tax rate.
"The board has to work with me," he said of plans to have an average tax rate that remains nearly the same from year to year. "That's what I want to see done."
He already has pledged to the staff that there won't be any layoffs, something the school board had hinted at before hiring Thomas.
"We went to a higher deductible" on health insurance coverage, which also now includes a health savings account and a preferred provider organization, Thomas said.
The change saved the school corporation about $800,000 a year. Thomas said he appreciated the willingness of the teachers and staff to make the change.
Thomas also has implemented a freeze on spending, except "only for what's absolutely necessary."
The other challenge follows a report in late November that the state may take over the school corporation due to poor student performance. The official enrollment of NHCSC this year is 2,269, down 3-1/2 students from the previous school year.
Thomas called the A through F grading system of school performances "ludicrous."
"We have very good quality of education here from what I've seen so far," he said.
Before the state could take over any school corporation the Department of Education deemed failing, the General Assembly would have to give its approval, Thomas said.
"I would like to see all the schools perform well," he said.
While working on his goals, Thomas said he also wants to establish a feeling and atmosphere of trust among the school board, the administration and staff.
"If you don't have trust, you won't have confidence," he said.
Thomas and his wife have three grown children, Leah who resides in Virginia, Beth who teaches at the University of Kentucky, and John who is in the machine trade business in northern Kentucky.
When he's not working, Thomas farms (soybeans and "a little tobacco"), and enjoys woodworking and white-water rafting.
But he really enjoys his work as superintendent and has an open door for anyone who has a concern.
"I'm still in the process of assessing and learning what's going on (at North Harrison)," he said, adding it's things he needs to know before making changes in order for them to be effective.
"I really enjoy what I'm doing," he said. "I enjoy the work."