Even before David Lewis was interviewed for the superintendent job, he and his wife got a sneak preview of Columbus. They came to town the second week in June, toured the Historic District and surveyed cultural offerings. They even visited the Muscogee County Public Education Center and talked to a few employees. By the end of the trip, they were sold.
“We found Columbus to be an ideal community in many respects,” Lewis said. “In visiting the Historic District, it has the charm of a very small community, but yet it’s large enough to afford its own amenities, which we found very much important to us.”
On Tuesday, the Muscogee County School Board voted unanimously to declare Lewis “the sole finalist” in the search for a Muscogee County superintendent. The motion was made by Patricia Hugley Green of District 1, which led to the 9-0 vote, followed by thunderous applause.
Lewis, 56, is associate superintendent for teaching and learning for the Polk County School District in Florida. The district has about 95,000 students — nearly three times as many as Muscogee County — and a diverse population similar to Columbus, officials said.
State law requires that the board wait 14 days before hiring the finalist. Board chairman Rob Varner said the clock began ticking Tuesday, and the board will call another meeting in exactly two weeks to take formal action on the superintendent position. He said Monday that the full details of Lewis’ contract will be released at that time.
Lewis said he’s had preliminary salary discussions with the school board, but “nothing final.”
Lewis was recently a finalist for the superintendent position in Polk County, where he has worked for 34 years. The school board selected another candidate in May, but Lewis said there are no hard feelings.
“I’m in good standing and certainly could’ve stayed there,” he said. “This is just a good opportunity.”
The announcement comes 16 months after then-superintendent Susan Andrews announced her retirement. The lengthy search had many in the community wondering if the district would go another school year without a superintendent.
Varner said the board considered 36 applications from 12 different states provided by Glenn Brock, the board’s search consultant.
Twenty of the applicants had doctorate degrees. Lewis is currently working toward a doctorate degree, which he anticipates receiving in late 2014.
Eight of the applicants had superintendent experience. Lewis was Polk County’s senior director of high schools for about five years before being promoted to associate superintendent in 2010. While the search lasted much longer than many expected, the process quickened once Lewis entered the picture.
On May 22, Polk County announced its new superintendent, selected over Lewis and another finalist. Colleagues told Lewis about the Muscogee County job, he said, and about a week after the Polk County announcement he’d filed an application with Brock, the search consultant.
The board interviewed Lewis on June 21 in Atlanta, and last week he found out he would be a finalist.
In all, the school board conducted seven interviews during the process.
“I think what came across from David, that the others demonstrated to some degree but he more so than the others, was compassion and passion,” Varner said. “I think he has a true passion for kids and making sure that all folks are uplifted in an educational environment — and that was so clear in the interview process.
“The other thing is, he’s an excellent communicator,” he said. “We could see that in the interview and in the multiple letters of recommendations. Almost to a letter, every one of them talked about his ability to communicate with everybody, from those at the top to those at the bottom. In a system our size with so many employees and kids, we have to have somebody to communicate the message.”
Prior to becoming a county-level administrator, Lewis served for 10 years as principal of Frostproof Middle/Senior High School, and was named Florida Principal of the Year in 2005. He has a master’s degree in music education, and also served as director of band for several years. His wife, Karen, who accompanied him Tuesday, is also a music educator. Lewis said he and his wife both have a great appreciation for the arts, and Columbus’ cultural attractions were a big draw.
The couple has three children. Their last child is graduating from high school this year. She’s a Division I softball player headed to Jacksonville State University in Alabama this fall.
Lewis said at this point in his life he is looking for “the job” and not “a job,” and Muscogee County seemed like the right fit.
Although Lewis is aware of recent controversies about the protracted search for a superintendent, his experience with the Muscogee County School Board has been “nothing but positive,” he said.
He wants the community to know: “I’m a very dedicated professional educator,” he said. “I’m very transparent.”
He said he would draw from the experience he gained at one of the largest school districts in the nation to improve the lives of students.
“The challenges in this school district are similar to many school districts around the country in that they’re all basically fiscal challenges,” he said. “But in terms of student performance, there’s the corresponding achievement gaps between sub-groups of students and also overall performance gaps that I think we can address here. My goal would be to see if we can aspire to be above other districts similar to our demographics and make sure our students can compete in the global and larger economy.”
On Tuesday, the school board meeting was followed by a news conference and then a private reception at the Columbus Museum. There, Lewis and his wife were introduced to local leaders, including Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Hugley Green, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, State Rep. Calvin Smyre and other elected officials.
Also present were Alan Harkness, the new director of the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries, and Lorette Hoover, the new president of Columbus Tech. Tomlinson said the changes are good for the community.
“I think it’s really great any time you have a fresh injection of leadership,” she said. “We’ve got these three new positions. People coming in, looking at things in a new way, and yet respecting what we do have going on. And so we can build on our strong foundation and hopefully take it to a new level.”
John Phillips, who has held the interim superintendent position since Andrews’ retirement, attended the get-together and said the board made an “outstanding decision.”
“They did their due diligence and came up with a stellar candidate,” Phillips said of the board’s 16-month search.
It doesn’t matter that Lewis had never served as superintendent, Phillips said. He should be given the opportunity to lead.
“Everybody has to start somewhere,” said Phillips, reflecting on his first superintendent job many years ago. “I’ve talked to many superintendents in Florida, and they say he’s the real deal.”