Q&A with new Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 24, 2013 

His wife was leaving, but he was trapped.

David Lewis patiently stood still as TV reporters and cameramen hooked him to their microphones Tuesday afternoon. The Muscogee County School Board unanimously had voted to hire him, and he was about to face his first news conference as superintendent.

"Oh, great," he cracked with a smile as he glanced over his shoulder. "You're having lunch, and I am lunch."

It wasn't that bad. In fact, the 34-year educator with no superintendent experience eagerly and easily answered the deluge of questions.

And he already looked the part: His pinstripe suit was adorned with a Muscogee County School District lapel pin.

Lewis, 56, climbed the career ladder in 95,000-student Polk County (Fla.) Public Schools, including band director, principal and associate superintendent, but now he is responsible for the education of Muscogee's 32,000 students. So in his first hour as the top administrator, working at a pace he called "deliberate urgency," reporters wanted to know his initial thoughts about the district.

Oh, and by the way, he said he is a Braves fan but still might have trouble rooting for the Falcons over the Buccaneers. No word, however, on which college teams he favors.

Here are some other highlights from that news conference, plus a one-on-one interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.

On his first priority

"You've seen my 120-day plan, and that really outlines my next several months of work to start acclimating to the district, becoming more knowledgeable about the district and some of its needs, and from there we'll start developing an action plan moving forward with short-, intermediate- and long-term goals."

On how he made his plan specific to MCSD

"I looked at the strategic plan and the annual reports over the past several years."

On his theme of listening, learning and building

"We'll be scheduling appointments with individuals and groups to meet with constituents in Muscogee County. A leader needs to listen, to learn from that listening and then to start building coalitions and collaborations with all the stakeholders."

On what might need to be modified or changed in MCSD

"I have several ideas, but I'm waiting to make a firm and fair assessment of that. I have some preliminary ideas, but I'm not going to share those at this time until I formulate a true action plan."

On having interim superintendent John Phillips retained as his temporary assistant through Aug. 31

"That's a practice that's been employed in other places. Superintendents and incoming superintendents have felt, by and large, that it's been very successful and very helpful to them in learning the district, particularly when the new superintendent is coming from another state. There are subtle changes between policies, laws, funding sources, that sort of thing, just to get their bearings."

On any glaring areas that need his attention

"Well, clearly, the budget is one that stands tall as an issue that needs to be addressed. That ultimately affects and impacts all programs and personnel."

On how he would relate with the school board

"I feel like that is one of my strengths, by talking and communicating and developing action plans based on input from various stakeholders. So that's the whole basis for the 120-day plan, to listen, learn and build a plan of action going forward."

On the expectation of more budget cuts

"I come from a district that certainly has experienced budgetary cuts over the last several years. I have ideas, but, again, I don't want to overlay my perceptions from my past experience on the issues of Muscogee. Every school and every school district has what I like to call its own DNA, and it's important for us to assess those and then make informed decisions."

On his No. 1 goal during his first 120 days as superintendent

"Just continue to build trust and confidence in my leadership going forward."

On dealing with criticism from the public

"Oh, I've certainly dealt with that before. That's not a problem. It's a matter of having communication both ways, hearing what their concerns are but clearly making sure they understand the district's issues and the realities the district faces. I think it's important for us to share information and be as transparent as possible, so that the community then understands where the district is financially or student-achievement-wise, whatever it may be, so that we all can work collaboratively moving forward.

On his proposed district-wide student council

"I understand that there's something very similar to that already in place. At the time, I was not aware of that, but my idea of a student council is the idea of allowing student leaders from the various student councils coming together to share with us their experiences, what they find to be very good about their individual schools but also as a system, things that they might suggest for us to consider revising or changing going forward. Oftentimes, it's been my personal experience, the students are not always given a voice, and I want to make sure they at least have their input provided."

On how long he wants to be here

"I'm in it for the long haul. Assuming the board is pleased with my performance and the Muscogee constituents are happy with where we're going as a whole, then it's our intention to be here as long as we can contribute."

On what stood out about his qualifications compared to other candidates

"I don't know the other candidates, so that would be inappropriate for me to comment on. I think I would like to say that I believe that I can communicate. I can build team. I'd like to think my integrity is important, my transparency and my commitment to high standards."

On what he would like to do first as superintendent

(Laughs.) "Well, I've just done it."

On the role of parents in the school district

"Parents are an integral role in what happens. I see this as a three-legged stool, if you will, supporting student achievement: Of course, professionals in the district being the first leg of that stool, the second leg being parents and the third leg being the community at large. It's going to take all of us working collaboratively in a great partnership to ensure that we make the Muscogee County School District the premiere district we all want it to be."

On whether he would fill the position of deputy superintendent, which his predecessor, Susan Andrews, chose to leave vacant

"I want to assess that. I want to see where the needs are. I don't want to have personnel built in just because it's what always has been done. I want to see where the needs are and then allocate resources accordingly. I have a preliminary idea in mind, but the priority has to be support of the schools first, and then we'll go from there."

On whether he wants any former colleagues to work in MCSD

"There are several that have expressed an interest to come, but I'm more about finding the right person for the right job. There are one or two that I would be interested in bringing with me, but it would be premature to talk about that."

On whether his wife, Karen, the choral director at Fort Meade (Fla.) Middle/Senior High School, will work in MCSD

"Well, right now, the plans are for her to spend the first semester there. That's the commitment she has made and compels her to stay with that district. As an educator, I appreciate that, as difficult a sacrifice as it is for us, but she's willing to honor that commitment. … She will transition up here, and if there were a job available, she might consider that, but we'll just see. She's not ready to quit working, I can tell you that, so at some point she will be teaching music here."

On the several hundred friends and colleagues in Polk County who lined up in a receiving line that lasted 3 1/2 hours to bid him and his wife farewell

"It was really humbling and overwhelming."

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