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Hughes' game plan for schools: positive thinking

When anyone asks why he is so positive and team-oriented, Jim Hughes points to his years as a coach. Getting all of the players heading confidently in the same direction is the key to success.

As Hughes officially takes the reins of the Citrus County public school administration this week, he knows the task before him is to create his own team and get everyone working to their full potential.

That will not always be easy. Hughes acknowledges that sometimes, your team does not win the game and sometimes the fans boo the coach.

Retiring Superintendent Carl Austin faced plenty of heat from the School Board and community, especially in the final years of his job.

But in an interview last week, Hughes made it clear that he will stick with the game plan that has served him well so far: positive thinking.

"I look for the positives in situations and people. . . . That's the style I have always believed in. . . . Just like in coaching, I think it works," he said.

Already, the 44-year-old Dunnellon High School graduate has been busy making changes in the people who form the backbone of his administration.

He picked Thomas Maher, a Hernando County school official, to serve as his second-in-command (see related story). The choice is the first time in years that anyone outside the Citrus school district has been appointed to a high-ranking position.

Other administrators are changing, and the ripple effect will reshape the administration into the next century.

"We are in the midst of change and working hard at setting meaningful goals and a mission," Hughes said. "People will be coming in with a willingness to learn and with new viewpoints. . . . We'll be looking at it from that perspective."

Setting priorities

The first challenge, as always, is money.

"As in previous years, we didn't get nearly as much funding (from the state) as we would want in order to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Hughes said.

That is especially true when it comes to money needed to build. Hughes said he will continue to develop a more realistic five-year building plan.

Hughes also wants the School Board to "zero in on goals."

"There needs to be some foundation for the school system to point to when it comes to using resources and making other decisions," he said. "Unless you have clarity in goals and mission and objectives, you don't have the kind of foundation you need."

Hughes also hopes to improve what he calls the continuing challenge of school-based, decentralized management. As school leaders get more comfortable with making their own decisions based on their school's individual needs, the district administration will be conducting business differently.

Hughes noted that some changes may not start off well, and the squeamish may want to go back to the old ways. "Our challenge is to maintain the environment in which schools can be risk-takers," he said.

High on the list, too, is how to handle the increasing amount of discipline problems in the schools.

Many have suggested opening an alternative school, an area Hughes knows well.

After starting his education career as a teacher and coach at Citrus High School in 1973, Hughes was offered the job as director of the county's alternative education program in 1976.

"I wasn't sure I wanted it," Hughes said, but he accepted because he knew it was the first step toward an administrative career. Now, he is glad for the experience because the program taught him a lot and has been successful.

Two years later, he became Floral City Elementary School principal, the job he held until Austin appointed him assistant superintendent.

In the past few weeks, as Austin has removed himself more and more from the day-to-day operations of the district, Hughes has found out in some small way how much more challenging the top job can be.

"There's more to do than you can get done," Hughes said, adding that he enjoys a challenge. "I'm just going to have to accept that I can't do everything."

Mending fences

Another top priority for Hughes is to open lines of communications with those who did not have a good rapport with Austin.

First on the list are several School Board members. The sometimes-rocky relationship Austin had with some board members, particularly Chairwoman Janet Herndon, has fueled headlines in recent years.

"I absolutely think it's important to have a good working relationship with each board member and open lines of communications," Hughes said. "If the board disagrees with something, it's not something that is a personality conflict.

"You have to have an environment in which even when differences of opinion exist, you should still have common goals," he said.

"I intend to have my say with the board, and I will have my say. But I have no thought at this point that I'll have a problem with that," he said. "I look for a good, healthy, positive relationship with the School Board members."

There is also the teacher's union, another group that has locked horns with the administration over the years. Hughes said he already has met several times with the leadership of the Citrus County Education Association.

"I'm sure there are times in the future when we might have disagreements, but my intention is never to take that personally," Hughes said. "I intend to always listen with an open mind . . . in an atmosphere of professional and personal respect for one another."

Hughes said he also will treat other employee groups with respect and listen to their concerns. At a time when the non-teaching employees are contemplating establishing a union, that open communication is a must.

"I intend to work with all employee groups," he said. "That's because I appreciate each and every employee. . . . I've always been that way."

As far as overcoming any feelings that the school system has not welcomed input from the staff or community, Hughes said the only way to judge whether that attitude exists is to go out and gauge it for himself.

"I think you've got to be out there getting into the schools and the school community," Hughes said. "That is one of the first things I'm going to be doing."

He is quick to add, "It's not that we haven't been, it's just that it is an area we need to do better with."

Leaving an imprint

As for words of advice from his predecessor, Hughes can point to comments Austin made in a recent interview as he packed up 32 years of education and headed into retirement.

Looking tanned and relaxed, Austin was contemplative.

Retiring, Austin said, has made him realize "just how short life really is. I'm just looking forward to each and every day for the rest of my life, regardless of how long or short that may be.

"There are only so many sunrises and sunsets in life, and I'm not foolish enough to believe that there is not someone out there to do this better than me," he said. "I've worked really hard all of my life . . . and now it's time to enjoy the fruits of my labors.

"It has felt good," he said. "I'm just at peace with myself and with everyone else."

Hughes quipped that all the talk about retirement has him thinking about going with those who are leaving.

He told a Times reporter that when the time came to answer the same sorts of questions about accomplishments and successes that Austin has been answering lately, Hughes already knew how he hoped to answer.

First, he said, he would want to point to all the specific accomplishments through programs, new schools, personnel and student successes.

As an assistant superintendent, he had parents and former students come to him and thank him for the role that he played in their lives.

"They say that when they look back, I've made a positive impact in their lives, and those are the greatest rewards for me.

"I can say I've had those rewards as a teacher and an administrator. I hope I can relate some of those same types of stories back from the time I was superintendent."