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Hernando school superintendent candidate quit Ky. job after only 10 months

BROOKSVILLE — S. Jayne Risen Morgenthal was superintendent of a small Kentucky school district when she applied for Hernando County's top schools post in late August.

The news of Morgenthal's application hit the local newspaper in early September. By the next week, just 10 months into her four-year contract for the Elizabethtown Independent Schools, Morgenthal was gone.

The School Board accepted her resignation, effective immediately, at a specially convened meeting on Sept. 24.

Morgenthal attended, but her attorney spoke for her. He said she only wanted to thank the district for giving her the opportunity to serve, according to the News-Enterprise in Hardin County, about 45 minutes south of Louisville.

Board Chairman Guy Wallace thanked Morgenthal, one of seven superintendent candidates set to be interviewed by the Hernando School Board next month, "for her service to the district," the News-Enterprise reported.

Neither side would comment to the press beyond that, and the terms of the agreement were not made public. Morgenthal's contract could be terminated if she and the board came to mutual terms or if the board had cause for her dismissal.

Why such a quick departure?

Four of five Elizabethtown School Board members did not return calls from the St. Petersburg Times this week. Wallace declined to comment on Morgenthal.

"I wish I could comment, but I can't," he said.

The board's attorney, Jerry Coleman, did not return a message.

Reached Thursday, Morgenthal said both sides agreed "that I would not say anything negative about them, and it would work both ways."

She said she could not comment on whether she received a settlement.

Morgenthal, 62, said she informed the board that she would be looking for another job and acknowledged board members were not happy about it.

But more significantly, she said, it had become clear by then that she and the board had differing philosophies on how to run the district of about 2,500 students and 550 employees.

"Our vision and our mission were not in the same direction, and the board and the superintendent cannot have their vision and their mission going in different directions," she said.

"I think the board individually and collectively were good people, we just weren't good for each other."

The chairwoman of the board when Morgenthal was hired, Regina Churchill, did not file for re-election in time to seek another term. Morgenthal described Churchill as her biggest supporter and after she left, the board was divided. Churchill could not be reached for comment.

"There was a 3-2 vote on everything," she said. "That is not a good situation."

Morgenthal described herself as a person of integrity and a hands-on administrator. She said she was proud that in her short tenure Elizabethtown made strides in classroom technology and professional development.

"You can look at my resume and see I have a solid career," she said. "I didn't do anything wrong and I have nothing to hide. I simply wanted to get out of there."

Her tenure got off to a shaky start when she was hired on a 3-2 vote in November 2008 to replace a superintendent who had lasted just two years.

Supporters of the other finalist — a longtime Elizabethtown school district employee named Gary French — packed the chambers and criticized the board for not listening to what they described as the school community's desire to have French as the new leader, according to the News-Enterprise.

Wallace made a motion to hire French, which died on a 3-2 vote. Another board member moved to hire Morgenthal.

When Morgenthal resigned, the board chose French to take over in the interim. He got the permanent job last week.

"That was just a done deal and everyone knew about it," Morgenthal said. "He was the one they wanted."

Doug Barnes, the athletic director at Elizabethtown High School, said that while the community was left to speculate about her departure, the news of Morgenthal's job search was likely a final straw for a board frustrated by her lack of communication.

"There's no mystery between Dr. Morgenthal and the Elizabethtown Board of Education," Barnes said.

There were rumblings in the district that Morgenthal was suspected of forging the signatures of employees on evaluation forms and could not provide the forms when asked by the board attorney.

Morgenthal adamantly denied Thursday any wrongdoing and said the documents turned up missing after someone broke into her office.

"To this day, I don't know what happened to the files," she said. "I provided the attorney everything I had. I wish I could lay everything on the table that I know and you would be able to write forever."

Morgenthal angered some in the community when she fired, by registered letter, a soccer coach at Elizabethtown High School without consulting Barnes or the high school principal, Steve Smallwood.

Morgenthal never gave a reason or provided documents to justify the firing, Smallwood and Barnes said. "I do wish she had communicated better on that," Smallwood said.

To her credit, Smallwood said, Morgenthal generally left administrators to do their jobs without micromanaging. But the approach might have been a little too hands-off, Barnes said.

"She didn't attend enough functions for our kids to know who she was," he said. "Our teachers rarely saw her."

Morgenthal declined to cite specifics, but said the decision to fire the coach was not personal, but "right for kids" based on information she had at the time.

"It's what I had to do," she said.

• • •

James Biggs, former superintendent for Covington Independent School District in Kentucky, called Morgenthal a top-notch executive whose integrity is above reproach.

Morgenthal had worked for three years as a director for elementary education in Covington when Biggs promoted her in 1990 to associate superintendent, a position she held for a decade. She worked under Biggs for about half that time, and more recently the two have collaborated as education consultants.

"She's honest as the day is long," Biggs said.

Biggs suggested that Morgenthal take the position in Elizabethtown. The Kentucky native began her teaching career there, after all, spending eight years as elementary teacher and then six years as instructional assessment supervisor for grades K-12. After a couple of years as principal in two other Kentucky districts, she came to Covington in 1987.

Morgenthal, who has a doctorate degree in education from the University of Louisville, later worked as an assistant professor in educational administration at the university.

She also founded and then sold an education consulting company. She could use all of that experience to come back and lead the Elizabethtown schools district to success, Biggs figured.

But it wasn't to be. Morgenthal, he said, fell victim to politics once a new board member was elected.

"They wanted their buddy to be superintendent there," Biggs said. "And after it ended these people still wanted to run their mouth and be ugly to her, and that's what's happening now."

Morgenthal, whose in-laws have a house in Hernando County that would be available to her if she got the job here, urged her prospective employers not to let the Elizabethtown experience be a distraction from a 30-plus year career.

"I know how to get the job done," Morgenthal said. "I know how to work with people. I can raise academic expectations in Hernando to the next level. But the first thing I have to have is cooperation with the board because they are my first constituency."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando school superintendent candidate quit Ky. job after only 10 months 12/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 7:34pm]

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