Dan Colwell spent six months helming the Fayette County Board of Education during perhaps its most turbulent period ever. He finished his time as interim superintendent on June 30 having done what he was hired to do: balance a budget that was facing a $15 million deficit. The path to a balanced budget was never going to be pleasant, and Colwell knew that before he took the job.
"I said no to start with. It was going to be tough and I knew it. I'd been keeping up in the newspapers about all of the issues and from talking to people in the system I knew what was going on. It's one of those tasks that I'm not sure anybody was anxious to do," Colwell said in a recent interview with the Fayette County News.
Colwell has been a long time Fayette County resident, but spent most of his career working for the Clayton County school district. He says he filled every role from teacher to counselor, coach, assistant principal, principal and central office before taking over as superintendent, a position he retired from in 2003 after 34 years with Clayton County.
"After I left there in 2003 I stayed retired and tried to play all the golf in the world for five years," he says with a laugh.
He returned to education in 2008, working four years as a leadership development coordinator for the Griffin Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA), which provides professional learning for educators in eight counties, including Fayette. During that time he came to know many of the Fayette County administrators as they passed through his professional learning courses.
Colwell then took a job in Henry County counseling principals on Race to the Top issues. He was supposed to work there for two years when Fayette County came calling in December, 2012.
Despite declining the interim superintendent job a couple times, Colwell eventually accepted after some urging.
"I think what switched my mind is I did know so many of the administrators here and I got some phone calls from people that I knew asking me to please come and help them through this time. It's hard to turn your back on people you know and respect."
Colwell's only caveat was that the board members would have to approve him unanimously, which they did.
The difficulty of the decisions ahead were no mystery, and Colwell and the rest of the staff knew there would be a lot of community input.
"Here's the thing, it wasn't just the problems with which we were faced, the budget and everything associated with that. It was also the dynamics of Fayette County-- an educated community, with people who are very involved, very supportive of the school system, with very strong opinions. Some of the decisions we had to make we knew involved communities, and we knew it was going to be volatile, and we knew we were going to expend a great deal of emotional capital."
The challenges were, in Colwell's opinion, potentially unprecedented given such a short time frame.
"We dealt with six major issues: cutting $15 million from the budget, cutting almost three hundred jobs, closing four schools, doing the redistricting that accompanies that, selling an elementary school that never opened, and hiring a superintendent during this volatile period of time in Fayette County. Any one of those six could have occupied a board or central office for six months.
"Having to do all those things in a compact period of time was something I'm not sure any other board in the history of the country has had to undertake, but it's something we had to do."
In order to get the job done, Colwell and his staff worked "all day long," spending a lot of time in meetings with various citizens and community groups voicing their opinions.
"Much of that time was spent in planning and brain storming and trying to research every aspect of every issue we had to address. Much of that time was also spent in meetings with various citizens groups or individuals, community members who wanted to come in and vocie their opinions, which we were eager to hear.
"My secretary [whose desk sits directly outside the superintendent's office] at the end of the day would say 'I haven't seen you all the day,' and I'd been sitting ten feet away from her all day."
The realities of the budget were stark from the get go. With personnel costs accounting for over 90% of the total budget, it was clear where the bulk of the $15 million savings would need to come from. What was less clear in January was how school closures might play into the picture.
"It was something that I went into in January completely opposed to," Colwell said of the closures. "That first week we met with officials at the Department of Education concerning our budget and our allotments for this next year and after we listened to that conversation knowing where we were going to be financially this next year, we knew we didn't have any choices."
Ultimately three elementary schools and one middle school were chosen for closure: Tyrone Elementary and Brooks Elementary, Fayette Intermediate School, and Fayette Middle School. Board meetings were moved to Sams Auditorium for some time as large numbers turned out to challenge the closures. Tyrone and Brooks were particularly well represented at the meetings as people stressed the importance of those schools to the foundations of their small communities.
"I hated that we had to close those four schools, I especially hated it for the communities of Tyrone and Brooks. Wonderful people there, and people who are very passionate about those two schools, and that's what you want, you want that passionate community support. But they were also very small enrollments and they were costing us more than the other schools in the system per student."
The true savings from the closures came not from the buildings but from the personnel, and Colwell said cutting nearly 300 jobs could not have been done without closing four schools. Even given the number of detractors that were vocal at the public hearings, Colwell heard a lot of support.
"I still think that 75 to 80 percent of the community were in support of the decisions that we had to make. They were the silent majority for the most part, but we heard that support day in and day out: 'Hold the course, do what needs to be done, make us financially viable again.' Now for the first time in a while we have a balanced budget and a decent fund balance."
Colwell had set a fund balance target of 10% of the total budget, or a little more than $16 million. That number was almost achieved by the end of June with a projected $14.3 million fund balance. Board member Leonard Presberg in particular questioned whether the fund balance should be built up so quickly as cuts were being made.
"Presberg has had concerns, and it's a good opinion to have, I think he's concerned about the level that we brought it up in one fell swoop. But he knows, and he voted for the budget, so he understands that having a healthy fund balance is important," Colwell said. "I understand his concern that maybe we did too much at one time and that we could have added some things back in. At the same time there are some question marks looming. No one knows exactly what the Affordable Healthcare Act is going to mean to school systems. And I believe [the board] may be able to add some things back and perhaps even give something unheard of, like pay raises."
Colwell believes that pay raises would be a "great idea" if they become financially viable, and underscores that there is "no doubt, this system could have never considered pay raises with the way things were going. At least now some consideration can be given to that in the future."
Fayette County has long been known for teacher quality and for being a place that teachers want to work. Pay raises may eventually play into keeping that teacher quality level high.
"If you look at the surrounding systems most of them are larger than us. The pay is not awful in Fayette County, but I don't know if it's commensurate with the high level of student achievement, one of the top four/five school systems in the state, but the pay for employees is nowhere near that. I don't think Fayette County will ever be the leader in pay but should at least be in the middle of the pack as far as metro counties."
Fayette will need to continue to attract quality people because as Colwell attested, "we've lost a lot of quality this year."
"Losing those first grade parapros, I'm worried about the effect that's going to have, although we started working with members of the Chamber on a volunteer program to help replace at least part of the time those parapros and hopefully that will materialze as summer goes on. Other school systems have already lost their first grade parapros and some of them are doing fine, filling in the gaps."
For now, Colwell is trying to relax and live a "stress free life." He's got plenty to keep him busy with eight grandchildren and "a lot of things around the house that I'd postponed the last six months."
Looking back on his time as interim superintendent, he thinks it will take some time to know whether everything was done for the better.
"I hope it was a success. I guess I'm too biased to mark it as a resounding success and I don't know if our decisions can be measured until some time passes by. Maybe this time next year we can look back and decide whether it was a success or not. I do know we were completely transparent, we didn't hide anything, we hit every issue head on and we tried to involve everyone that wanted to be involved."
Looking into the future, Colwell sees bright things.
"I personally think that the school system is positioned now to be as good or better than it's ever been. They've got to do more with fewer resources, but other school systems around us have had to do the same thing. They're stepping up to the plate. There's no doubt in my mind that with this kind of challenge the employees of this school system, who are some of the best in the entire state, will meet and exceed that challenge. They will answer it."