SUNDAY EDITION | Mike Raisor says he has experience to lead JCPS - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Mike Raisor says he has experience to lead JCPS as superintendent

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) –When Mike Raisor landed his first job as principal in 2007, he took over a middle school where nearly 90 percent of its students lived in poverty.

During his time at Harwood Middle School in Evansville, Ind., where he had been assistant principal before getting promoted, he implemented clear policies and expectations for students known as “The Hardwood Way.”

English and math proficiency scores jumped 13.3 percentage points from his first year as an assistant principal – 40.2 percent proficient in the 2005-06 school year – to 53.5 percent in 2008-09 during his second year as principal.

Raisor, 46, said Harwood was the only middle school in the district to show test gains over that period while also meeting all of its federal No Child Left Behind targets.

“When you have a high-poverty school and you have half of the kids above proficiency, that isn’t good enough obviously, but it’s moving in the right direction,” he said.

Raisor now wants to lead Jefferson County Public Schools, where he has been chief operations officer since 2012. He is one of two candidates for the superintendent’s job along with acting Superintendent Marty Pollio, who has served as the district’s top administrator since July.

Raisor, who earns $181,463 a year as COO, admits he hasn’t had Pollio’s exposure, but he believes his experience makes him the ideal candidate to lead JCPS. From his perspective, Raisor sees a district that needs to get its financial house in order, especially with the prospect of losing as much as 10 percent of its enrollment to charter schools on the horizon.

Downsizing the district’s footprint to free up additional funding while also maintaining enough space for future growth are key to his vision for JCPS.

During four public forums with Pollio, Raisor said that closing 20 JCPS schools and facilities over a five-year period could free up hundreds of millions of dollars while maintaining current staff and student numbers and leaving room for 15 percent growth.

“I want us to get our district at a more realistic size,” Raisor said. “We are the same size as we were school-wise during the baby boom. However, population-wise we’re very much smaller now.”

“We have $1.5 billion each year to spend on the children,” he continued. “If we just handed that out, that would be $15,000 a child. We need to better target that money to impact the things that happen in the classroom so we can have world-class outcomes for every one of our children.”

JCPS is Raisor’s third school district in a career that started in 1996 in a social studies classroom at Lanesville Junior-Senior High School in Lanesville, Ind., where he also coached basketball, cross country and track until 2001.

He moved to the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation that year, primarily teaching social studies and coaching basketball at Perry Heights Middle School until 2005.

That’s the year Raisor moved to Harwood as an assistant principal. He was recognized as Indiana’s assistant principal of the year in 2007, the same year he became Harwood’s principal.

Raisor said he believed the school was “making great strides” in student achievement when it was combined with another school in 2010. With more funding, he maintains Harwood could have achieved greater academic success.

Even so, Raisor’s work there helped elevate him to the Evansville district’s deputy chief operating officer in 2010. Raisor also served as project manager for the district’s strategic plan from November 2009 until January 2012.

“I thought he had the possibility of having a rare combination of excellent leadership qualities but also an analytical mind that could really focus on operations, and from my perspective he was a strong academic leader, and being able to merge those skills sets is a very rare characteristic,” said Vince Bertram, president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Project Lead The Way and a former district superintendent who hired Raisor as Harwood’s principal and later promoted him in 2010.

Bertram said he wasn’t surprised to see Raisor apply for superintendent openings, only that “it’s taken this long.”

“I really thought that some of the other districts that have reached out to him and tried to get him to be their superintendent, I thought he would take advantage of some of those opportunities, but he has just been deeply committed to Jefferson County and the work that’s being done there,” Bertram said.

Raisor was promoted to executive director of the Evansville district’s Office of Operational Excellence in 2011 until he left to take the COO role in Louisville in March 2012.

At JCPS, he worked under former Superintendent Donna Hargens. Her support from the Jefferson County Board of Education and within the district later eroded, forcing her to step down last July.

The board named Pollio acting superintendent once Hargens left, and Raisor said his fellow superintendent finalist has provided stability and helped mend relationships with schools since assuming the interim role.

But Raisor said JCPS needs more than short-term stability in the months and years ahead.

“We have underfunded infrastructure,” he said. “Student achievement and success isn’t necessarily moving at the speed we need it to forward. We also have some huge storms on the horizon, storms that I have lived through before in other districts – charter schools, pension reform, massive state budget cuts.

“I have a toolkit and experience that is suited for that.”

While Raisor praised Pollio’s work as acting superintendent, he said there’s no comparison between their qualifications.

Pollio has earned more exposure and a post-Hargens morale boost, “but if you look at what issues we’re facing, if you look at what I bring to the table, it is really no contest,” Raisor said.

Raisor doesn’t think his time in the school district’s central office working under an unpopular figure like Hargens will be a hindrance for him as the school board selects a new superintendent by March 1. The board's Superintendent Screening Committee recommended a candidate for the job last week but did not reveal its choice.

“I think our board knows that I was pushing back quite a bit about a lot of things,” he said.

“I think the board also knows that I’m a truth teller, that I’m a straight shooter. I’m the first person, to my knowledge, that’s ever brought up some of the facts, not opinions, but some of the facts regarding our financial situation, regarding the state of our infrastructure.”

Others said Raisor has done his share to foster better working relationships with JCPS partners.

David Couch, associate commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology, said Raisor has “provided a sincere cooperative spirit” in implementing the state’s EdTech initiatives over the years and helped build a relationship that “has been by far the best it’s ever been with the JCPS technology organization in my 26 years at the Office of Education Technology.”

“JCPS is now regularly one of the very first versus one of the very last districts to implement our statewide edtech initiatives,” Couch wrote in an email to WDRB News. “That didn’t happen before his arrival.”

Others, however, say more can be done at JCPS. During his budget address Jan. 16, Gov. Matt Bevin criticized the number of six-figure jobs at the district during his Jan. 16 budget address and said it should cut administrative costs.

But Raisor said an organization with a $1.5 billion budget to educate more than 100,000 students and employ more than 15,000 needs “the highest caliber professionals that you can find.”

“And those people deserve commensurate pay,” he said, adding his belief that there could be four to six jobs with high-paying salaries that exceed their peers in other districts.

Raisor also pushed back against other criticisms lobbed at JCPS by members of the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda, who have said the district has not adequately prepared graduates for work or college.

Their methods, he said, have been “highly counterproductive” so far.

He said he would not decline an invitation to meet with the steering committee, known as SCALA, or other community groups on Louisville’s public education system, but he would not commit to joining SCALA if he’s named superintendent.

“We’ve made ourselves an easy target,” Raisor said. “We’re living outside of our means. We’re not achieving student success at the levels we should be, and all that comes back to us not having solid systems that work together and not aligning resources properly to impact students.

“I would suggest that people not throw stones, and I won’t throw stones back. I will say be a partner with us, help us move forward. I believe anyone that wants to make public schools better has a place at the table with me as superintendent.”

JCPS has faced several challenges in recent months, from a federal investigation into allegations of child abuse and neglect in its Head Start program to an ongoing state audit that could lead to state intervention in the district.

Raisor, however, says he’s the right candidate to guide JCPS through those and future problems as superintendent.

“I’ve seen what true equity and excellence for all children looks like,” he said. “I’ve seen what a school district on the move looks like, and I know we can do it here.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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