Colleagues praise Muscogee County superintendent candidate David Lewis

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 20, 2013 

Believe it or not, the best testimony to the work David Lewis did during 34 years in Polk County Public Schools in Florida may come from anonymous comments on his hometown newspaper's website.

After the Lakeland Ledger published a story last week announcing that Lewis was resigning to become superintendent in Muscogee County, 16 readers went online to praise him and to take shots at their own school district.

"So sad, I think our county really made a mistake!" one reader wrote.

"Losing Dave Lewis is a huge blunder by this school district's leadership," another wrote.

"I certainly hope the School Board members are happy with themselves," someone agreed.

A music teacher praised him for being an advocate of the arts and wrote that she was now "a little scared for my job." A former student called Lewis "Super Dave."

Many others went online and "liked" these comments.

Only one person offered a negative view of Lewis: "Columbus just made its worst decision ever." To which another person quickly responded: "You are wrong!"

Lewis, 56, the associate superintendent for learning in Polk County, Fla., is expected to receive a unanimous vote and be hired when the Muscogee County School Board convenes during a called meeting at noon Tuesday, 16 months after Susan Andrews announced her retirement.

Those close to the situation in Polk County say that circumstances hurt Lewis' candidacy for superintendent there: He was an insider seeking to follow a superintendent who'd been promoted from within three years ago and who'd received mixed reviews while on the job.

"The mindset was to hire somebody from the outside, to bring in new ideas," said Hazel Sellers, chairwoman of the Polk County School Board who taught for 25 years in the system and was elected to the board 11 years ago. "I personally thought David would be able to do the job, but I'm pleased with the superintendent we hired as well."

Tim Harris, another current board member and former teacher who voted for Lewis, summed up the search this way: "It's the old adage, 50 miles and a briefcase (makes you an expert)."

Hunt Berryman is one of the board members who voted instead to hire Kathryn LeRoy, who was the chief academic officer in Duval County and was denied the No. 1 job there.

"Not that David doesn't have the tools to be a good superintendent," Berryman said, "… but maybe there was some desire to see some change from the outside."

Lewis said he'd applied for no other jobs while seeking Polk's top position, and that as soon as he was passed over, friends suggested he look at the Muscogee County opening.

"You're disappointed," he said, "but I've learned a long time ago that my professionalism and my faith will carry me through the day. Things happen for a reason. One door closes and another one opens."

Despite voting against Lewis, Berryman calls him "the ultimate professional."

"He understands learning and what needs to be done to have academic achievement," he said. "I couldn't criticize David in any way, shape or form. Overall, David is the real deal."

Humble beginnings

Lewis is the oldest of two sons born to a brickmason and homemaker in Clearwater, Fla., and was his family's first college graduate.

In 1979, he received a bachelor's degree in music education from Florida Southern College in Lakeland -- which is in Polk County, where Lewis has spent his entire professional career to date.

Lewis landed his first job before graduating. His college band was performing at a Polk school where the principal was looking for a new band director, and Lewis' college band director suggested he interview for the opening.

After nailing his trombone solo, Lewis returned to campus and found a note on his door. He was offered the position.

"I really had a passion for music and wanted to share that with students," Lewis said. "I've seen education be the opportunity to really change people's lives."

Lewis also served as music director at Fort Meade First United Methodist Church for 31 years, stepping down in 2010 when he was promoted to the No. 2 spot in the Polk system and also began pursuing a doctorate degree.

Bruce Tonjes, retired associate superintendent in Polk County, figures Lewis' experience as a music director has prepared him to be a superintendent.

"It gives you the ability to understand how complex things are brought together and made to work," he said.

Tonjes also points to Lewis' involvement in baseball, first as a high school catcher and later as an umpire from Little League to college.

"You're looking at the whole field," he said, "and that's probably like being a superintendent."

Lewis' youngest child, Stephanie, has a softball scholarship to Jacksonville State University and is about to begin her freshman year at the Alabama school. Moving to Columbus from Florida means Lewis will be about 450 miles closer to his daughter.

Building relationships

Folks in Polk County describe Lewis as humble and down-to-earth. Despite climbing the career ladder, Lewis and his family have lived for three decades in the same home in Fort Meade, a one-stoplight town.

"It would be closer (to the district office) to live in south Lakeland, where all the affluent areas are," said Nat West, retired vice president of Winter Haven Hospital and a member of the local public education partnership. "But those kinds of trappings just are not important to him."

After Lewis became a central office administrator, it took him several years to upgrade his old car -- to a Mazda.

"As a parent, you want somebody you can approach and be able to speak to," said Janet Lamoureux, past president of the Polk County Council of PTA and a current representative. "He's a very approachable gentleman."

West said he plans to give Lewis a going-away gift, and he knows how his friend will respond.

"I've never done anything for him without a thank-you note from him," West said. "I'll tell him, 'Don't send me a thank-you note this time.' But I'm sure he will."

Many residents of Columbus believe the next superintendent should have a track record of improving schools affected deeply by poverty.

West said Lewis accomplished this while serving as the principal of Frostproof Middle/Senior High School from 1995-2005. His last year there, Lewis was honored as Florida Principal of the Year, as well as the Frostproof Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year.

"Frostproof is in the middle of orange grove country, really low-income," West said, "but he had an A-rated school, which is unheard of in our county for a high school."

Nancy DeMarco, who as Frostproof's Title I facilitator helps students from disadvantaged families, called Lewis "a visionary."

"I've worked with principals who are very good managers," she said, "but he saw things that could change our education."

DeMarco said that during his tenure Lewis got the school an auditorium and a sports complex, started learning communities among teachers, and instituted weekly advisory groups in which students could learn things like character building and test-taking strategies.

She said he also added one element to the district's mission statement of "Rigor. Relevance. Results."

"Relationships," DeMarco said.

For Lewis, building relationships also meant holding people accountable, according to DeMarco. She said his mantra at Frostproof was "Be where you are supposed to be, do what you are supposed to do and when you are supposed to do it."

Hazel Sellers, the former teacher and current school board chairwoman, said good teachers should welcome the chance to work in a district with Lewis as superintendent.

But slackers beware.

"If you're not up to par, you will quickly either decide to do something else or improve your skills," Sellers said. "He knows what a good teacher looks like, and he understands where the improvement needs to be.

"I think he's going to understand that you give people under you the authority and hold them accountable."

To the rescue

West said he got an inside look at how Lewis operates when he joined him on a tour of the district with interim superintendent John Stewart. They visited 42 of the 166 schools and centers and asked teachers two questions: "What are we doing well?" and "What do we need to improve?"

One of the biggest complaints was a confusing report card for grades K-2.

"He got over 60 people together -- principals, teachers and parents -- and changed it," West said. "He just respects and values everybody, regardless of position or economic status."

Beth Cummings, senior coordinator for music in Polk, has known Lewis since she started as a chorus teacher 23 years ago and said he won't favor the arts over other programs.

"He's going to want students to achieve academically," she said. "That's going to be first and foremost. He believes the arts are one way to do that, but he also believes there are other ways too."

Like football.

Frostproof won two state championships in football while Lewis was principal. Neal Byrd, retired police chief in Frostproof, remembered how Lewis responded when a player accidentally collided with a cheerleader during a game.

"He leaped over two fences to get to the student," Byrd said. "He was one of the first people to reach her. He risked injuring himself to help her."

After another sporting event, Lewis was called on to make a tough decision.

David Smith, president of the NAACP Lake Wales Branch in Polk County, recalled two black girls attacking a white female teacher in the stands at a basketball game. School officials suspended the girls, but Lewis, as the senior official in charge of the district's investigation, expelled them.

Despite the harsher punishment, Smith agrees with Lewis' decision.

"He did his job, as far as I'm concerned," Smith said.

Smith noted that Lewis visited black churches to improve relations. He called him "a stand-up man."

"He does a good job relating," Smith said. "He's always there if you need him. … He treats everybody equally, but he doesn't pull any punches."

West, the former hospital executive, said he has only one criticism of Lewis: He too often speaks in jargon.

"You also could say that about almost any educator," West said. "You've got a prince there. The guy's going to be great for you."

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