One-on-One with Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney
By Charlane Oliver
Get to know the man behind Tennessee’s top school district
With more than 38,000 students in forty-four schools and growing by 2,000 students a year, keeping Williamson County Schools (WCS) at the top of the academic rankings can be a moving target. Somehow, the man behind the state’s top performing school district gets the job done. Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney leads a district that touts a record 24.7 ACT composite score, twenty-four National Merit Finalists, a 95.5 percent graduation rate, nine National Blue Ribbon Schools and $125 million in college scholarships given to high school graduates. The list keeps going. When asked what keeps him awake at night, it’s not the $6 million budget deficit he was handed from the Williamson County Commission this past spring to avoid a tax increase, nor is it the tough decision to cut key new staff positions and services to balance that deficit. No, it’s the well-being of his students and teachers.
“I worry about individual students,” he says. “I get to know their stories and struggles and find creative ways to support their social and emotional needs. I have those same concerns for employees who find themselves in less than desirable situations. Having empathy while counting on them to do a job is sometimes a struggle.”
You won’t find very many public figures who give out their personal cell phone number, but Dr. Mike Looney is one of them. He prides himself on being accessible to anyone in the district. For him, he doesn’t have the luxury of logging off at 5 o’clock and leaving his duties at the office or taking an extended summer break. For his fifty-fifth birthday in February, he’s planning to take his first vacation in several years. Mountain climbing is on the itinerary. Indeed, an uphill climb ensues as growth continues to exacerbate the school district’s financial dilemmas. As the county commission and school board jockey for funding by way of the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) formula or an impending sales tax increase, he believes the most stable, equitable method of funding schools is the property tax but also thinks increasing the sales tax rate is a prudent idea.
“We do a lot with a little bit,” he says. “We spend well below the state average on per pupil expenditures and are producing superior results that, in large part, is offset by the level of engagement and private contributions that our parents and teachers are making.”
What exactly is the secret to the district’s success? Mike believes it’s the students, staff and parents that make the difference. Whereas many districts across the state crave for high parent involvement, being superintendent in an affluent district where parents are highly engaged poses some unique challenges. He describes WCS parents as robust supporters of their children’s education needs who often leverage their intellect and resources to advocate for their children.
Another contributing factor of success is being relentlessly focused on achieving the district’s strategic plan. The Williamson County School Board adopted a new strategic plan at its June 19th meeting. Local business executives, community leaders, educators and parents will have an opportunity to hear more about the new strategic plan at the Williamson, Inc. State of the Schools Address on Tuesday, August 15th at Battle Ground Academy. Sign up for this event at williamsonchamber.com.
“We’re working on a huge initiative that will shatter records everywhere. It really will. Stay tuned,” says Mike.