Photos by Jon Anderson.
Hoover schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy leads a meeting about school rezoning in February at Hunter Street Baptist Church.
When Kathy Murphy came to work as Hoover’s school superintendent a year ago, she came in with a full plate.
The school system was embroiled in a controversy about charging students fees to ride the bus, in the midst of a major effort to redraw school attendance zones and facing budget deficit problems.
Now, a year has passed, and school board members say they are more than satisfied with Murphy’s work so far to tackle those issues, while at the same time manage the day-to-day life of the school system.
School buses, rezoning
The board, at Murphy’s recommendation, rescinded the school bus fee plan in August, just two months after Murphy arrived.
Murphy said it was a difficult philosophical stretch to say the school district was providing a free public education and then charge students a fee to get to school.
“We recognize the value of getting our children to school,” she said. “It was the right thing to do for our students. That was something that was very troubling and bothersome to many of the people in our community.”
As for rezoning, Murphy set former Superintendent Andy Craig’s school rezoning plan aside and pretty much started over, in a process that “frankly has been more challenging than I had expected.”
Murphy said she’d like to be able to check off the rezoning effort as completed, but U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala on May 20 gave only preliminary approval to the rezoning plan submitted jointly by the school district, the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
She is not allowing it to go into effect for the 2016-17 school year. Instead, she wants all the parties to further evaluate how other matters related to a decades-old federal desegregation case could affect student attendance zones.
Derrick Murphy, who served as school board president this past year, said he thought the superintendent did a great job of involving the community in the rezoning process, listening to people and working with the Justice Department and Legal Defense Fund to craft a plan.
School board member Earl Cooper said there were some people who didn’t like the result of the rezoning process, but they at least understood the need for rezoning because the superintendent helped educate them.
“She was open, honest and transparent,” Cooper said. “She communicates and gets feedback. That’s an exceptional leader.”
When Murphy started work in June, she inherited a 2015 budget that started with a $7 million deficit. Four months later, at the end of the budget year, the 2015 deficit turned out to be just $1.4 million, but partly because some big expenditures were delayed until 2016.
Staffing decisions for the 2015-16 school year already had been made in the spring before she started, so when it was time for her to present a 2016 budget to the school board, she reluctantly presented a budget with a $10.4 million deficit and said cuts would be coming later.
With 85 percent of the operating budget tied up in personnel, “that’s a place you have to make some adjustments,” she said.
In April, Murphy said 15-20 positions likely would be cut for the coming school year, resulting in a savings of $1.2 million to $1.8 million. About 14 of those job cuts likely will be at the high school level, she said.
She and her staff have worked with principals to identify electives that are less popular, and some of those teaching jobs will be cut, she said.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re offering our students the things they want, but there’s no way we can decrease expenditures if we keep doing the same things we’ve done in the past,” she said.
Where possible, school officials are making job cuts in conjunction with retirements and job reassignments, Murphy said. For example, numerous positions already have gone unfilled in the current budget year, including an assistant principal, a counselor, some maintenance staff, a maintenance supervisor, district interventionist, tech support job and a child nutrition job, Murphy said. Those cuts should save about $950,000 in fiscal 2016, she said.
School officials also are examining the supplements paid to athletic coaches and other faculty who serve as sponsors for academic teams and extracurricular groups, she said.
“There’s no way I’m going to wave a wand in the next year or potentially two years from now and be able to say we’re not spending a dime more than we take in, but you’re very clearly going to see that we’re making great strides in the direction of adjusting our expenditures to our revenues,” Murphy said.
Relations with city leaders
Cooper said the superintendent has been very transparent with the mayor and City Council about the school system needing more money as residential growth puts a strain on the district.
Murphy said she hasn’t been bashful about sharing the school district’s needs with elected officials and that she has great respect for the mayor and City Council, even if they don’t agree on everything. “It’s vital that we work together for the good of our community and the good of our children,” she said. It’s not about the adults; it’s about the kids, she said.
The superintendent also has had numerous other important issues to address, including the sale of the former Berry High School property, which as of press time was being considered by Judge Haikala as well.
Murphy also recommended the addition of a second legal firm and has been busy finding a new chief school finance officer to replace Cathy Antee and a new assistant superintendent to replace Melody Greene.
The school board in April gave Murphy a strongly positive evaluation, with an overall score of 4.4 out of 5. A score of 4 would mean she consistently demonstrates a high level of performance, and a 5 would mean she far exceeds expectations and demonstrates exceptional quality and/or unique contributions.
Cooper said he greatly appreciates the work she has done.
“Her enthusiasm, her passion for the job, her work ethic, the transparency — everything she has taken on for Hoover City Schools has been nothing short of exceptional,” Cooper said. “I think she has represented the Hoover school district about as well as anybody could be expected to … She has exceeded expectations in a big way.”
Murphy said while her plate has been full, she doesn’t regret coming to Hoover from Monroe County.
“What a terrific school district,” she said. Her biggest regret is that her daughter didn’t get to experience Hoover City Schools, she said.
She appreciates the great leadership team in the schools and being surrounded by educators that consistently rank among the top teachers in the state, she said. The school board is smart and thoughtful and has made her a better superintendent, she said.
But Hoover hasn’t arrived yet, Murphy said. There’s still a lot of work to do with academic progress and many other challenges to tackle, she said.
This article was updated on June 3 to include the federal judge's decision on school rezoning.