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Mike Newell selected as Jacksonville schools superintendent

Donoho's David Swinney chosen as Jacksonville High band director

Mike Newell

Mike Newell works with teachers at a Kitty Stone Elementary School training event in 2018. Newell was selected by Jacksonville's board of education Thursday as superintendent of the city's public schools.

JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville's school board voted unanimously Thursday to name Mike Newell as the new superintendent of the city's school system.

Newell, who has been the interim superintendent since January, is himself a product of the city's schools who graduated from Jacksonville High and worked as a police officer in the city before becoming an educator.

"The thing that really touched me was his heart for the school," said school board member Jeff Gossett. "The man bleeds blue and gold."

The board chose Newell over two external candidates, Pamela Liebenberg of the Tuscaloosa County school system and former Georgia school administrator Gary Gibson. Board members interviewed all three candidates last week via video conference, yet another adjustment to the pandemic. 

Newell has led the school system since just before the coronavirus crisis. Formerly the operations officer for the school system, he became interim superintendent with the departure of Mark Petersen, who resigned from the office in January. Since then, schools have shut down under state health orders, then switched to online learning and devised new ways to deliver food to kids on free and reduced lunch.

School officials plan to honor graduating seniors tonight with an in-car parade from downtown Jacksonville to the high school's football field. 

"Thank you for stepping up when we needed someone to step up," board president Ed Canady said to Newell after the vote.

Newell said his next step will be to plan for the coming school year, with the pandemic in mind. He said school officials currently plan to begin the school year on Aug. 11 as originally planned, with typical in-person classes. He said state orders or a resurgence of the virus could push that date back a few weeks. 

"One thing we've learned from coronavirus is that plans can change very quickly," he said. 

Newell said schools currently plan to have sports in the fall, though coronavirus may require changes to training. He said football players may be required to train in small groups, to help with contact tracing if one person in the group contracts the virus. 

Looking to the longer term, Newell said he hopes to find a solution to overcrowding at Kitty Stone Elementary. The city has about 1,680 students in its school system — making it about the size of Anniston's student body — in two schools, Kitty Stone and Jacksonville high.

"Growth is a good problem to have," he said. 

Newell said a large class of sixth-graders, about 140 of them, will move from Kitty Stone to the high school next year, though overcrowding will likely require construction in the future. 

The Thursday vote means the board is extending a job offer to Newell, though the terms of the contract have yet to be worked out. Petersen, the former superintendent, made $130,000 per year. 

The school board also voted Thursday to hire David Swinney as Jacksonville High's band director, replacing Savannah Cole, who left the school system this year. Swinney is now the band director for the Donoho School.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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