New St. Helena School Superintendent Kelli Joseph made an impression on her future employers right from the start.
When asked in April at a public forum for superintendent candidates whether getting a schools tax passed would be a top priority in a parish that has rejected four tax proposals in the past few years, Joseph’s answer was succinct.
“No,” she said.
Joseph elaborated by saying that from what she could tell, members of the St. Helena Parish community wanted to see positive change in the schools before they trusted the school district with more taxpayer money.
Less than two months later and after just a week on the job, Joseph had sent a clear signal that changes are coming.
After starting work on June 13, Joseph announced at a special School Board meeting June 16 her intention to remove four senior administrators as part of a central office reorganization.
Joseph also met with the school system’s bus drivers and asked them to come up with a plan to cut costs from the district’s transportation budget.
She proposed eliminating two food service positions at the elementary school and terminating contracts for a finance officer and a grant manager.
Other jobholders are in line to see their pay reduced or responsibilities increased.
“We are under the gun right now to try to make this district financially sound,” Joseph told the board and a packed meeting room. “At this time, we are not.”
She also stated that her goals are to direct the cuts as far away from the classrooms as possible.
Some in the community questioned Joseph at the June 16 meeting, challenging her directly on the rationale behind the cuts.
“You are eliminating positions, key positions, so how does this raise the morale level?” local minister Carolyn Habersham asked Joseph. “What is the purpose of (the cuts) and how do you plan to replace those positions?”
Habersham also wanted to know why hiring educational consultant Clif St. Germain was included as part of a grant.
“This person comes out of Mandeville,” Habersham said. “He’s not African American, and he does not know about working in poor parishes with rural concerns.”
The School Board came to Joseph’s defense.
President Scott Galmon told the crowd that Joseph was the educational leader and that “the train has left the station.”
Fellow board member Virginia Bell also spoke up in favor of the moves.
“Nobody wants to see anyone lose a job,” Bell said. “But we have to do something.
“We are at the bottom.”
One longtime board member was encouraged by what he’d learned so far of the new administration.
“I have never seen a board this committed to doing what’s right,” Alton Travis said.
Travis has served on the board since 1998.
“People have been treating the School Board like an employment agency,” Travis said. “That’s changed now.”
Joseph still faces significant challenges in attempting to turn around the chronically low-performing school system.
But she has served notice that she plans to take the challenge head-on.
“I did not come out of my comfort zone to mess it up,” she said of her new assignment. “I came to clean it up and move it up.”
Faimon Roberts covers the Florida Parishes for The Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.