Effective Saturday, five-year Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer will be retired, with sun and sand awaiting her.
The superintendent, who acts as the chief executive officer of the school system, is the only position that the Liberty County Board of Education has direct authority to fill. The board has appointed Deputy Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Conley to serve as interim until someone is permanently hired.
With a week left on the job, Scherer spoke with the Courier days before graduation about her accomplishments since beginning in July 2008.
“I want people to recognize the progress that we’ve made, and I feel like we’ve made some significant progress if you look at graduation rate and test scores,” Scherer said. “The overall trend has been upward, which is what we wanted to do.”
In 2011, 93.1 percent of students met or exceeded standards in CRCT reading/English language arts, compared to 80.2 percent in 2007, according to district reports on the Georgia Department of Education website.
There also have been gains in CRCT mathematics, with 80.2 percent meeting or exceeding the standards in 2007 and 84.7 meeting or exceeding in 2011.
Department of Education data also indicates the percentages of seniors passing and excelling on end-of-course tests in offered subject areas has increased between 2008 and 2011.
Objectives and challenges
Each year, Scherer has established written objectives for the board, but she came into the role with some less tangible goals.
“One of my concrete goals was build more of a sense of community within the schools and schools within the community,” Scherer said.
In meetings, Scherer often has mentioned the concept of being a “school system” rather than a “system of schools” — that is, having employees from different campuses collaborate and work together rather than in isolation, she said.
She credits that collaboration with increases in student performance on end-of-course tests among high-school students, as Bradwell Institute and Liberty County High School teachers have taken to sharing teaching plans, writing common assessments together and ensuring that their curricula meet the same objectives.
Collaboration also has come in the form of the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement’s two-year leadership Rising Stars seminar, which placed most of the district’s assistant principals in monthly workshops. There, they learned alongside each other and worked together on in-school research projects aimed at increasing student performance.
Still, there’s room for improvement when it comes to community involvement, Scherer said. She’d like to see stronger ties between schools and the private sector.
“In the same way that the military units are, be mentors, be volunteers,” she said. “Money is always welcome, but it’s not just about giving money. It’s about your presence, your support, opening up the businesses in town for job placements for kids in the work-based learning programs and that sort of thing.”
The Liberty College and Career Academy, which opened its Airport Road facility in 2012, is a strong example of the types of collaboration Scherer envisions. It also was one of her pet projects, and she garnered support for the concept during one of the annual Liberty County planning workshops.
Projects already in the works when she arrived, such as renovations at each school’s football field and Bradwell Institute, also became priorities, she said.
Scherer added the job wasn’t easy, especially as she stepped into the role during the economic downturn.
“Dealing with the financial crisis became kind of an unexpected issue to have to deal with, so my personal goal was to make that as painless as possible by not laying people off, by working together to streamline the process and letting attrition take care of people rather than pink-slipping like many other school systems had to do,” she said. “Even though everybody gave a little bit, we have been able to get through it so far without the loss of jobs and making it terribly painful for any one person.”
During Scherer’s tenure, the district has engaged in staff furloughs and decided to discontinue elementary-school operations at one campus, decisions that have not come without controversy. But administrators say the measures are cost-cutting strategies to weather longer-term budget uncertainties that still exist, such as state funding and the sequestration’s potential impact on federal impact aid.
Harder decisions may fall on the shoulders of Scherer’s successor, especially as the district has faced declining enrollment during the past year.
“The obvious financial issue, that’s not going to get better within the next four or five years, I don’t think,” Scherer said. “And with the furloughs on base, that’s going to worsen, because I don’t think people understand yet how much that’s going to hit the community.”
When civilian employees lose one day of pay, Scherer said their discretionary spending likely will follow — which means local-government entities will collect less tax revenue. For the school system, that means less money will be available for capital projects.
Critical to the school system’s continued success, Scherer said, is a unified board of education that builds a strong relationship of trust with whoever it taps as superintendent.
“They need to focus on student achievement and financial well being of the system,” Scherer said. “They need to not be distracted by a few vocal people who disagree or object to a policy that’s been made for the good of the whole. What they really need to focus on is the big picture and the good of the whole.”