(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles featuring Ohio County Schools, the district’s new superintendent, and the new direction of the district.)
She’s about positive energy that promotes learning.
It is truly that easy to understand.
The Ohio County Board of Education voted in December 2015 not to renew the contract of former superintendent Dr. Diana Vargo, a long-time educator in Ohio County Schools who followed George Krelis in the position. She was part of the administrative pipeline visible to county voters since the 1980s, but three of five board members believed the time had arrived to disrupt the flow in an attempt to change how the education process was taking place.
For many years Ohio County Schools has been known for excellence, consistently placing near the top in the state of West Virginia with test scores and achievement records. But when those accomplishments were compared to national levels, a little above average was, well, a little above average.
Dr. Kim Miller, the principal at Woodsdale Elementary and the mother of three girls in the public-school system, was one of 10 applicants for the position and was hired after a series of interviews. Her history in the district is lengthy and includes everything from cheering coach to teacher to county administrator to now the CEO of the system with a four-year contract and a six-figure salary.
And then the voters spoke, too, on May 10, when one incumbent board member was returned to the board of education, and another seeking re-election was dispatched in favor of a newly elected official. Sarah Koegler was convincingly returned to continue representing voters in the second district, and Zach Abraham was selected over incumbent Gary Kestner in District 1. Abraham was then voted in as the board president by a majority of members during his initial meeting.
“The voters made a change, and I think that’s because the people had had enough of the negativity,” Miller said. “I think there’s that point when people say, ‘Enough is enough.’ They want a great school system, and they want a focus on great things, and now is the time to do that.
“The unity comes from communication. If someone comes in and has a complaint about this or that, I’m hoping they are coming in with two solutions. We want to solve whatever problems there may be and move on because we don’t have the time to waste on our kids. We don’t have time to waste on negativity,” she continued. “The voters said it’s time to move forward.”
Miller assumed the superintendent duties on July 1 and immediately started the process of filling positions within Ohio County Schools. Openings existed with the system’s Central Office, and principals were needed, too. Although the position of assistant superintendent had not been filled for more than a year, the time finally arrived to hire an individual to replace the departed Bernie Dolan.
In order to do so, Miller gathered a large committee filled with employees of the school system to participate in the interviews for assistant superintendent. In the end, Rick Jones, now the former principal of John Marshall High School, was the chosen one.
“And Mr. Jones did a fantastic job answering questions about everything from facilities to maintenance to curriculum to discipline and about his philosophies about education, and he hit one out of the ballpark,” Miller reported. “And during a six-day period we conducted interviews for positions in our Central Office, and we actually went about it a little differently.
“Instead of putting people into positions, we put positions into people,” she continued. “So we hired two Central Office administrators after interviewing several people for those positions, and they are Raquel Welch McLeod and Walter Saunders. They rose to the top because they did an outstanding job during the process.”
The two new staff members, Miller explained, will use the experience they have collected during their respective two decades of service to further the superintendent’s mission of discovering as many learning-process improvements as possible.
“Mrs. Welch-McLeod will be working with the pre-schools, with student services, attendance, curriculum, English language arts, and social studies,” she said. “Mr. Saunders will be working with federal programs, and his expertise is in the math and science areas, so he will be working with the math and science curriculum between K-12.
“They both will be looking at the resource positions, as well, and dividing that up accordingly,” the superintendent said. “As far as the committees that we gathered for the interviews, I wanted to make sure we had people with different ideas and thoughts who were very capable with finding the right people for the open positions that we had when I started on July 1.”
Miller also needed to find her replacement at Woodsdale Elementary.
“I feel very good about the fact that I have left Woodsdale Elementary in good hands with their new principal, Ashley Minch. She came to the interview with a lot of innovative ideas and suggestions,” Miller said. “She knew the interview. She knew the school. She did her research, and she came in roaring with pride and accomplishments.”
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Dolan, now executive director of the West Virginia SSAC, was the most recent assistant superintendent employed by Ohio County Schools. When he departed for his new position, a new assistant was not hired under Dr. Vargo.
“The job description is still a little bit of a work in progress, but I do know that at the beginning, a big part of my job will be dealing with the renovations at Ritchie School, and that’s because of my experience with the renovation projects at John Marshall High School,” Jones explained. “I do have a love for athletics, so hopefully I will get to work in that area from the Central Office.
“But I think my biggest job, and I did say this during my interview for the position, is to tell Dr. Miller when she is wrong. I believe we all need those kinds of people working with us all the time,” he said. “I told her not to hire me if that was going to be a problem because none of us are right all of the time.”
“It’s really a great thing,” Miller said.
Jones opted to leave Marshall County Schools because, he insisted, it was the right time, the right position, and a chance to work alongside the right person.
“To me, it was a good fit to make the attempt to come to Ohio County Schools, and during the last couple of years I’ve decided that I didn’t want to be a superintendent at this point in my life,” Jones said. “I thought that if I ever do want to advance in the educational ranks above principal of a Triple-A high school, there were only two jobs for me, and those are superintendent and assistant superintendent.
“In Marshall County they already have a great assistant superintendent in Corey Murphy, so that’s why I thought I should go for it. I have maybe 10, 15 years left before retirement, and I didn’t know if this position would ever be open again, so here I am,” he continued. “Plus, Kim is one of the only people in the world that I could work with in a position like this one. I’ve known her for many years, and we’ve been good friends for 25 years, so I believe her when she says she wants to do things together. That’s not lip service. I really feel that way.”
The positive energy inside Woodsdale Elementary became known in the school district, and the excellence awards that followed provided the proof that indeed something special was taking place there despite the negativity that has haunted Ohio County Schools for the past few years. And, unlike many educators, Miller utilized social media platforms to communicate with parents of Woodsdale students. That, she said, will continue and the school district already has created a new Facebook presence.
“I spoke with my staff (at Woodsdale), and I always told them that we owe it to the children to give 100 percent every single day. I told them that if I can bring my game every day, if I can give 100 percent every day, so could they,” she said. “And that’s contagious, and it spreads to other people — the teachers, the staff, and to the students.
“As far as the future use of social media, Mr. Jones is an expert with those platforms, so he’s going to be able to bring a lot to the table and help us reach a larger group of people so we can spread that energy even farther,” the superintendent said. “It starts with being yourself, and I genuinely care about doing the right things for the children and people have seen that through the years. That’s why I am hopeful that everyone in the system will hop aboard and make this school system an even better one.”
Ambitious goals, Jones admitted, face him during his first year in his new position.
“I plan to be in our school buildings a lot, and I have a goal to go meet with every athletic team and every club that we have in Ohio County Schools, and that begins on Aug. 1, when I start meeting with the athletes so I can introduce myself,” Jones said. “I want every kid to know who I am, and I want their parents to know they can call me when they feel the need.
“If you get out there and meet all of those kids on all of those teams and in all of those organizations, they will believe that I care,” he added. “And I believe in social media because it gets information out there. It will also give us a chance to celebrate the kids and the teachers and our community. We did it at John Marshall, and it worked out very well, and I plan to do the same thing here in Ohio County.”
One of the first signs that a new administrative team was in place was the announcement of a new logo and a fresh slogan for Ohio County Schools.
“Together We Achieve.”
“It is just that. Together we achieve. It’s applicable to our staff, our students, our parents, and the community. Together, I believe, we can make anything happen,” Miller insisted. “If we want student achievement and if we want to continue to be ranked highly statewide, that’s how it’s going to happen, and that’s how we will become ranked highly nationwide.
“I thought it was most fitting because it’s applicable to everyone involved with the process,” she continued. “It took me many, many days thinking about it and bouncing it off several people before I arrived to a decision. I knew I wanted something that means everything to everybody. And people get it.”
(Photos provided by Ohio County Schools with parental approval)