Upchurch announces retirement

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By Tracy Harris

After 28 years in the Oldham County school district, Superintendent Paul Upchurch has announced he will retire in June.

Upchurch announced his decision Monday during the board of education meeting.

Upchurch became superintendent in 2005 after seven years leading the Elizabethtown Independent School District. Prior to Elizabethtown, Uphurch was both a teacher and principal for Oldham County Schools.

One major factor in the timing of his retirement are the changes coming with Kentucky Senate Bill 1, Upchurch said. 

With one year remaining in his eight-year contract, Upchurch said it is logical to leave now so a new superintendent is in place from the beginning of the Kentucky Senate Bill 1 changes.

Kentucky Senate Bill 1 is a major reform, he said, even bigger than the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990.

The bill is changing academics, assessments and accountability. State officials are adopting new academic standards and placing stronger emphasis on college and career readiness.

"I think the board is in agreement that we would want to continue with the path that we're on," said Oldham school board chair Joyce Fletcher, making student needs and academic achievement top priorities.

Board members will be looking for a superintendent to meet the needs of 21st Century learners, Fletcher said.

"We're preparing students for a future (when) we don't even know what that future holds," she said.

The board will appoint a selection committee to recommend a new superintendent. Gayle Johnson, assistant to the superintendent, will lead the committee. 

Johnson also led the committee in 2005. He is the secretary/treasurer for the Oldham County Educational Foundation, a non-profit organization which solicits support from businesses and community members for Oldham’s public schools.

Johnson began his teaching career in 1968 as a science teacher in Scott and Oldham counties. He's been a principal, assistant superintendent and deputy superintendent in Oldham County, and was interim superintendent in 1992.

Fletcher said the committee will have community and district representatives.

Upchurch said applications will likely be due sometime in January. The committee will narrow down applicants to a handful of finalists around March, with a decision likely by the end of May.

Upchurch said he always wanted to retire while he still enjoyed the work. His wife retired a year ago.

"It's just better this way," he said. 

Upchurch believes the district will continue to improve not because of what he has done as superintendent, but because of what all the district staff have done.

"I don't feel like I've done anything," he said. "It's been a 'we' approach."

While superintendent, Upchurch encouraged district administrators to look at what they could do to help teachers improve.

"It's not a top-down approach," he said. "It's, 'What do you guys need?'"

His emphasis on collaboration is noted by many in the district, including North Oldham High School Principal Lisa Jarrett.

The district has become less competitive and more collaborative, Jarrett said — something she attributes to Upchurch's leadership.

"We've realized we can grow from other people," Jarrett said.

Assistant Superintendent Rick McHargue agrees. McHargue is in his 36th year with the district, and like Upchurch is a former teacher and principal. McHargue was one of three finalists for the superintendent position in 2005 when the school board hired Upchurch.

Upchurch focused on showing that not only did schools have to get better, so did every individual classroom, McHargue said. 

"All superintendents have their strengths," he said. "Teaching and learning (are) Paul's."

During his tenure, Upchurch has emphasized increasing literacy by adding a literacy coach position to each school and adding the Reading Recovery program, which provides one-on-one help for first graders struggling to read.

The district also greatly expanded its gifted and talented services in recent years, Upchurch said. There are now four people on the Gifted and Talented Educational Services administrative staff and coordinators at each school. 

Upchurch also pointed out major technology and infrastructure improvements he's overseen.

The new bus compound accommodates the district's 180-bus fleet, he said, including indoor service bays for 19 buses.

Upchurch said it is the combination of students, staff, board members and parents that make the district successful.

"We attract phenomenal principals and teachers," he said. "And there's an extraordinary group of families out there."

Jarrett said Upchurch should be included in that list.

"If I could summarize one reason why Oldham County is as successful as it has been, it's people like him," she said. "I'm only going to work as hard as he is, and he sets the bar high."

When asked if he feels he failed in any area, Upchurch points to teacher salaries. 

With assessment scores amongst the state's highest, revenue remains one of the state's lowest.

Due to restrictions on revenue, only 45 cents of every tax dollar goes to the district's general fund, Upchurch said, limiting how much is available for payroll.

"I wish we could've done better (with salaries)," he said.

The revenue challenge will outlast Upchurch's tenure, however. McHargue and Fletcher both agree it will be a primary issue for Upchurch's replacement.

Jarrett said she hopes the board finds someone who can "pick up the torch and keep running with it."

"It sounds like it'd be an easy task," she said, "but it's a heavy, heavy torch he's been carrying."