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Jacksonville school board looking at three superintendent candidates; vote could come Thursday

Jacksonville City Schools could have a new superintendent as early as this week. 

The city’s school board plans a special called meeting Thursday to discuss hiring a new superintendent to replace former superintendent Mark Petersen, who announced his resignation in January. 

Board members held online interviews last week with three candidates for the job: current acting superintendent Mike Newell, Tuscaloosa County Schools director of curriculum and instruction Pamela Liebenberg and Georgia-based school administrator Gary Gibson. 

Mike Newell

Mike Newell is director of operations for Jacksonville City Schools, and has been acting superintendent since Petersen's resignation. About half of his tenure in the job has been spent dealing with the closure of in-person classes due to COVID-19. 

Newell said the most important trend in schools — with the exception of coronavirus — is the growing awareness that educators need to take a "whole child" approach rather than focusing only on test scores. 

"We have to tend to the physical, social and emotional needs of our students," he said in the video interview. He noted that Jacksonville has created an in-school social worker position, which can help with problems such as chronic absenteeism. 

"She has been phenomenal," Newell said. "She can get involved in the needs of those families and find out what is keeping those kids from getting to school."

Newell said the school system has made a number of moves to improve school safety, including installing cameras on buses. Still, he said he'd like to get away from a "zero tolerance" approach to school discipline and bring in mental health counselors to deal with students' mental health needs. 

"We see that a lot of students have trauma that they're dealing with," Newell said. 

Newell is a longtime Jacksonville resident and an alumnus of Jacksonville High. He told the board he started his career as a police officer, while in college at Jacksonville State, before shifting to education and becoming a teacher and later an administrator in Jacksonville schools.

Pamela Liebenberg

Like Newell, Pamela Leibenberg got her start in a different career, working for years as an office manager in a law firm in Birmingham. She said she discovered a love for teaching after volunteering at a day school that was just below her office. 

She worked as a teacher and assistant principal in Jefferson County schools before moving to Tuscaloosa County as principal of Crestmont Elementary and later as the director of curriculum and instruction for the school system. 

Asked the most important trend in education, Lieberberg brought up "blended learning," the practice of mixing online and in-person instruction. Some school systems have discussed mixing online and in-school instruction when classes resume in fall. 

"If schools change and you have to have different shifts coming into your high schools, how are you going to make this possible? How are you going to make this happen?" she said in the video interview.

Liebenberg said the Literacy Act, a state law that requires students to be reading on grade level by third grade, is also a coming challenge. Liebenberg said she's on the Literacy Act committee for Tuscaloosa schools, and she said that early childhood education will be part of bringing up literacy. 

She said she played a role in setting up a pre-K center in a high school, something Tuscaloosa County schools had never done before. The plan worked, she said, with more than 100 high school students signing up to volunteer in the pre-K classes. 

She said she has learned to be cost-efficient in Tuscaloosa County, which she said has relatively low per-pupil funding. 

"We're queens of doing more with less," she said. 

Gary Gibson

Aside from dealing with coronavirus, doing more with less is the trend Gary Gibson sees as most pressing for schools in 2020. 

"Will even building buildings be part of what we do in the future? Because we're coming to understand that we can do a lot of this without even coming together," he said. In the video interview. 

Gibson, originally from North Carolina, got his start as a minister, which evolved into working in schools as a football coach. Soon he made the transition to teaching and working as an administrator in Georgia schools. For three years, he was superintendent of Taylor County schools in Georgia, though the school board terminated him in 2016 in a 3-2 vote, according to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, a decision that came with no explanation from the board and triggered a lawsuit by residents who supported Gibson. 

"We're looking at something now that may be different from anything we've seen in the past," he said. 

Gibson said coming budget cuts might even mean school systems have to consolidate schools in order to make ends meet. Asked how he might deal with funding cuts if they happened in Jacksonville, Gibson noted that systems he worked for in Georgia handled Great Recession-era cuts with “work schedule adjustment days” — another term for teacher furloughs. Administrators tried hard to avoid cutting extracurriculars, he noted. 

Gibson said the toughest decisions in cutting will ultimately fall to the school board, who will have to vote on a budget. 

“I need to give you the best information I can get you, but it’s your decision,” he said.

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