Lakeland: More than a one-school wonder
Lakeland School System is progressing toward that August 4 deadline when the school doors open, and the new superintendent, Dr. Ted Horrell, is confident the district will be ready.
Some skeptics have doubted the potential success of a district that currently has just one school.
"But the longer I’ve done this, I’m convinced it’s a great way to start,” Horrell said. “Because we have a very good sense of what we have and what we need. I’m convinced we can do it in terms of the budget in a way that’s fiscally responsible and also that delivers even more bang for the buck at the instructional level. And it gives us a great position to grow from.”
Some community members initially feared escalating costs with a new municipal school district, Horrell said. Most murmurs died down when he assured commissioners he does not intend to ask for any more than the city is required to chip in — the equivalent of a 15-cent property tax increase.
“I don’t think this is going to be an expensive proposition, to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said. “Now when we talk about building — that may be a different conversation. And that’s part of what we want to find out so we’ll have that information for the board of commissioners and for the community.”
His district currently has a seven-year inter-local agreement with Arlington Community Schools to educate Lakeland’s middle and high school students, but that is a finite arrangement.
Based on growth projections for both municipalities, he expects that Arlington Middle will no longer be able to guarantee seats for Lakeland middle-schoolers by then.
That means that seven years is the drop-dead deadline to have a solution in place, and the time to plan ahead is now. Horrell is working with others to look at the timetable, economies of scale and financing.
“We’re going to be looking ahead: Does it make sense to do it sooner? If we’re going to build now, does it make sense to build a junior/senior high and just have everybody in Lakeland?”
Through a shared services arrangement between school districts, he is working with planner Nedra Jones on ideas for future expansions of the Lakeland School System so Horrell’s office can manage the growth effectively and efficiently. They have identified a local real estate consultant to advise on potential locations. He plans to get a proposed plan before the school board by July, if not sooner.
He believes the district is well poised for growth because of its small size. “We’re not trying to make the population fit an arbitrary group of buildings. We’re going to be able to build out and say, ‘This is what we need.’”
At the moment, his primary goal is to ensure he anticipates all expenses for the upcoming school year so he can have a complete budget that doesn’t need much revising. He’s comfortable with the results so far.
Surpassing the challenges
He listed a few challenges and open questions to date.
- Final student numbers are pending for transportation, and that will help determine the school start time – a big, big question in the community, Horrell said.
- Although student numbers are important to new school districts for many reasons, it’s less of an issue for Lakeland than it is for the Mid-South’s larger new districts because Lakeland School System is small and has essentially the same attendance zones, he said.
- His district’s small size also means he has to fulfill multiple roles. The district does have a secretary who’s been vital to his productivity, but Horrell is not only superintendent, he’s also chief financial officer, human resources director, student services director, and director of operations. “It’s been challenging,” he said. “We’re all wearing more hats than a superintendent in a big system does — that’s everybody. But I’m wearing almost all the hats. And that’s challenging just logistically.”For example, he described having to choose between meeting with other local districts’ CFOs and HR directors, because the two groups gather at the same time.
“But it’s also been very gratifying, mainly because I am learning from so many great people that know how to do these things,” he said. “A lot of former Shelby County Schools colleagues and folks in other systems have been so generous with their time and information and their willingness to share, because at the end of the day, we all want everybody to be successful.”
Horrell outlined some district milestones and achievements:
- He announced to teachers on April 17 that their new principal would be longtime assistant principal Joretha Lockhart, and they were happy. “They went bananas,” he said.
- Committees of board members and teachers are making policy and program recommendations and advising Horrell on policy development and technology to keep or acquire.
- Parents can expect to see in-school cooking again with a school-based cafeteria. The new local municipal school districts are sharing the services of a nutrition supervisor, and the Lakeland kitchen staff will return to cooking instead of using the central kitchen model.
- He is also starting to execute contracts after researching, comparing offers and deliberating. “I’ve spent three and a half months trying to get all the contract pieces in place and doing the research on what is going to be the best option,” Horrell said. “And now we’ve just got to execute some of these contracts.”
- Teachers and staff members should hear about their status around the first of May when the district intends to start issuing official intent-to-hire forms.
- His hope is for kids and parents to find the school as expected, but better. “That’s kind of the goal, that we don’t create stress by not doing things or not having things that they’re accustomed to, but that we immediately begin enhancing the things they’re accustomed to.”
Structurally, it will be the same he said. But the district will be working on improvements in quality, technology, instruction, culture. “Just anything we can do better, we want to do better.”
Horrell is also looking into long-range plans for instructional improvements while he’s amid the operational details of standing up a school district. For example, the district might eventually replace expensive and easily outdated textbooks with ebooks. He said ebooks link to external resources and allow Lakeland students to receive content that is more frequently updated and more relevant.
This path doesn’t require every student to have his own electronic device, but it helps, and he said any plan for ebook would include hardware plans as well. Parents may be willing to provide devices, PTA fundraisers might support the technology program, or the technology providers themselves might make the financial arrangements easy to maintain once the initial investment is made.
On a personal note
Horrell said Lakeland Elementary has been generous in inviting him to attend as many functions as he can – concerts, assemblies, presentations and other opportunities to meet with teachers, parents and students.
“I’ve never worked in an elementary school setting, and it’s been one of the great joys.”
His son, Fletcher, is just two and one-half years old, and Horrell enjoys school visits on a personal level too, getting a glimpse of what his son’s first school years will be like.
Fletcher seems to be just as excited. Horrell said his little boy was familiar with the big kids at Germantown High School, where daddy was principal. Then father and son went together to Lakeland’s PTA night, and Fletcher was wide-eyed at all the younger children, so much closer to his size.
When he went to bed that night, he said, “Daddy, I love your new school.”
SNAPSHOT OF DR. TED HORRELL
- He’s a big Grizzlies fan and share season tickets with a friend.
- He enjoys family time.
- Horrell is a musician. He plays the guitar, sings and writes songs – mostly rock ‘n’ roll and folk rock. He’s been in bands for years. Although he’s not currently in one, he is doing some recording. He was in the band Central Standards for about seven years, and they put out three albums, won a Rock103 Battle of the Bands and were the first band to play at one year’s Beale Street Music Festival. See them on youtube.com: