Spear’s leadership marks performance

Advocate staff photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Michelle and Bill Spear, from left, visit with Jeanne Ebey Nov. 8 at Doyle High School during a retirement reception for Bill Spear, Livingston Parish Public Schools' departing superintendent. Ebey worked with Spear in many capacities during her 19 years in the school system as a classroom teacher, and most recently as the director of special education.
Advocate staff photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Michelle and Bill Spear, from left, visit with Jeanne Ebey Nov. 8 at Doyle High School during a retirement reception for Bill Spear, Livingston Parish Public Schools' departing superintendent. Ebey worked with Spear in many capacities during her 19 years in the school system as a classroom teacher, and most recently as the director of special education.

Livingston Parish Schools Superintendent Bill Spear’s four-year tenure has been marked by significant growth in student enrollment and district performance, despite budget constraints that sometimes hampered his goals.

Spear, 54, will retire Feb. 15, after 27 years of service as a teacher, coach, principal and administrator in the district. His last working day was Friday.

Spear’s primary focus since taking the helm as superintendent has been student performance, he said.

“Someone once told me that every day, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. You never stay the same,” he said. “So my goal has always been to improve.”

Since 2008, when Spear was selected as superintendent, the district’s performance score has risen from 101.5 to 117.4, jumping 9.9 points in the past year alone, state Education Department records show. Half of the district’s 42 schools are considered “top gains” schools, having met or exceeded the state’s growth targets for the year.

The district has received a B rating from the state for the past two years and is now less than three points away from being an A-rated district.

Livingston Parish schools also have consistently ranked among the top 10 in the state, Spear said. Among districts with 25,000 or more students, Livingston is second only to St. Tammany Parish, he said.

“With all the budget cuts the district has had to endure, it’s a tribute to our teachers and our principals that we remain in the top 10 despite it,” he said.

Four straight years of flat state funding, combined with state-mandated increases in retirement contributions, have sent the district into financial exigency twice in the past two years.

The crunch forced the district to take a series of cost-cutting measures, including freezing employee pay; eliminating three noninstructional work days in 2011-12; freezing the hiring of paraprofessionals, central office staff and maintenance workers; freezing central office and maintenance overtime; temporarily eliminating substitute teachers for middle and high schools; and increasing student-to-teacher ratios.

The last cut was the one that hit the hardest, Spear said.

“We saved changing our staffing formula until the very last because we knew, studies have shown, that it was going to have an impact on students,” he said.

The formula change also brought a reduction in the district’s number of instructional coaches — a group of positions Spear had hoped to expand.

“Having a designated instructional coach on every campus was one of the best things the district ever did,” he said.

Because of other demands on their time, principals are not always able to serve as that support person for their teachers, Spear said.

During a Nov. 8 School Board meeting, the last before Spear’s extended leave, board member Milton Hughes said he appreciates the job Spear has done, particularly the way he handled difficult financial times.

Board members agreed Spear had carried himself admirably and always with respect for his colleagues.

Disagreements among board members had dogged the previous administration — a divide Spear managed to bridge during his tenure.

“You did a great job keeping the board informed,” board member Jeff Cox told Spear.

“You’ve been a good man for a good system, and we appreciate that,” board member Keith Martin said.

Despite recent financial difficulties, the district continues to grow, enrolling 300 to 500 new students each year.

The system has expanded capacity with each influx, including two new Juban Parc schools and South Fork Elementary, all in Denham Springs; expansions at Denham Springs High and Freshman High; and the soon-to-be-completed Live Oak High in Watson.

“I’m hoping that will help us hold off, at least for a while,” Spear said.

In addition to meeting increased demands, the district also faces a rollout of the Common Core State Standards curriculum, changing dynamics in system administration brought on by new state laws, and a statewide voucher program that has drawn students even from high-achieving districts such as Livingston.

Spear said he believes the parish’s schools are in good hands.
“Incoming Superintendent John Watson has the tools and the abilities to bring this district to the next level,” he said.

“I was very fortunate to have worked with John and (assistant superintendent) Tommy Cothern,” Spear said. “When we faced crucial major issues, there were not two other people on this Earth I would rather make decisions with than those two.”

Watson became interim superintendent Monday and will officially take the reins on Feb. 15.

Spear said he does not know what is next for his career. He plans to take a year off before beginning to look for other opportunities.

“I want to continue being a productive member of society,” he said.

Asked whether that next opportunity is likely to be in education, Spear said, “Probably not, unless it’s something I just can’t pass up. I’m really excited about doing something different, something I really enjoy.

“I really enjoyed doing this,” he said.