News from the Tennessee Valley State, Local and National news
SUNDAY, JULY 8, 2007

Bob Balch is the superintendent of Morgan County schools.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Bob Balch is the superintendent of Morgan County schools.

Superintendent Balch’s first 6 months filled with obstacles

By Bayne Hughes · 340-2432

Money problems, personnel decisions, conflicts with the school board and principals, and avoiding a tax disaster are a few of the issues that Bob Balch faced in his first six months as superintendent of Morgan County schools.

Yet, Balch believes the tumultuous months have been a success, even as the school system deals with a financial crisis.

“The first six months have been very rewarding,” Balch said. “I’ve had fun.”

School board member Mike Tarpley joked that he didn’t want to remember the last six months, but said this has been a difficult transition period.

“We’ve dealt with some major challenges that would be difficult for even the most experienced superintendent,” Tarpley said. “But Bob put his head down, tried to work through some things and we’re making progress.”

School board member Betty Hackett said Balch inherited a lot of problems, particularly a mandate from the state Department of Education to cut expenses and rebuild reserves. The budget projects a $1.1 million reserve at the end of fiscal 2007, and the state wants school officials to rebuild the reserves to about $4.6 million.

Local officials do not have to make up the difference in a year, but they must make progress toward that goal, and that has meant cutting teachers and expenses.

“This state mandate is something we can’t ignore,” Hackett said. “But Mr. Balch really has accepted the responsibility admirably.”

The superintendent went into office facing a number of vacancies in key positions after several retirements and resignations. Board members refused to approve one recommendation because of lack of supporting information, but then approved the appointment when Balch supplied the proper information.

He pushed the board to approve a new personnel director position, but members balked, citing the financial situation.

Balch attributed the early issues with the board to the learning curve a new superintendent goes through in the initial months on the job.

His first month also included a key referendum on 7.5 mill property and car-tag taxes that county and school officials almost let disappear without renewal. While county voters voted to renew the taxes, the county still lost more than $600,000.

Despite promises from state legislators that they would help the school system make up the difference, they took no action during the recent legislative session and the money is probably gone forever.

“That’s a huge blow to us, especially with our financial situation,” Balch said.

The newly formed staff got an immediate test as the school system had to undergo state monitoring, an inspection that state officials conduct of local school systems every three years.

While there were citations, Balch said his new staff pleased him in how it handled the inspection.

“There was some apprehension because we had a lot of new people in place,” Balch said. “But, overall, I think we hired some very professional people and they did very well.”

Tarpley and Beckett said the new staff impressed them.

“One thing that’s helped this year is he’s hired an excellent staff,” Beckett said. “They’ve brought a lot of new ideas.”

Monitoring transitioned right into personnel time. School systems typically decide which non-tenured teachers to keep and which to let go in May, but Morgan County had to cut 45 non-tenured teachers to give school officials flexibility during the June and July hiring period to cut expenses.

Personal style

Balch’s style sometimes rankles board members and principals. Personnel issues now dominate work sessions as board members question the new superintendent about salaries, duties and similar issues.

Some board members complained recently about the lack of communication with Balch, while some principals said he is leaving them out of the hiring and transfer process.

Hackett attributed some of the issues to adjustment from former Superintendent Don Murphy’s style to Balch’s brand of leadership.

She said Balch had a major transition as he went from 34 years of teaching to superintendent without any administrative experience as a principal or assistant principal.

“The first few months were tough, but I think he’s doing a good job with the resources we have,” Hackett said.

Tarpley, one of the board members who was unhappy with Balch, said the superintendent is trying to correct the problems.

“He’s made an extra effort in recent weeks to work with the board,” Tarpley said.

Balch attributed the principals’ unhappiness with him to not liking to lose employees, despite the financial condition of the school system. He said the system also had an unusually large number of teachers asking for transfers.

“It’s a natural reaction for principals (to losing employees),” Balch said.

The next six months promise to be almost as busy, but Balch hopes they will be less controversial. The hiring process continues. Finance Director Rodger Spillers will unveil the 2008 budget this month and school starts in August.

The Capital Projects Committee, with every board member serving on it for the first time, soon will begin meeting. Balch said it needs to form a plan to deal with growth issues in Priceville, Trinity and Lacey’s Spring.

“Our priorities have to be adding classrooms at West Morgan Elementary, Lacey’s Spring School and at Priceville Elementary,” Balch said.

Balch said the policy committee is beginning to study the policy code for an overdue overhaul.

“The policy code is more than 30 years old, and a lot of things need to be changed. It’s a different world than it was in 1971,” he said.

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