LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — The Fayette County School Board voted in Tyler Murphy as the new school board chair at the start of the year amid district-wide virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a search for a new superintendent following the unexpected death of former Superintendent Manny Caulk.
Murphy is a national board-certified teacher who has ten years of teaching experience in history and government in the Woodford and Boyle County school districts. He is currently a High School history, civics and government teacher at Boyle County High School teaching AP world history, AP US government and honors US history.
He began serving on the Fayette County School Board when he was elected in 2018 and was voted in as board chair at the start of 2021 for a two-year term.
Read his exclusive interview with LEX 18 reporter Claire Kopsky:
KOPSKY: Why did you decide this chair position was a position you wanted to fill?
MURPHY: Well this was a position that is the Board's decision. And I was very clear that I'm wanting to do whatever was the wishes of our board team because it's important that we work as a team, especially in a critical time like this. And, anyone who knows me knows that public education is in my bones -- it's something about which I'm very passionate. It's what drives me, both in my classroom as a teacher and as a school board member, so that's the type of passion and drive and energy that I hope to bring to this position.
KOPSKY: What are your priorities are goals to accomplish during your term?
MURPHY: Well, certainly the most immediate and pressing consideration for our public schools in our community is getting our students and our staff back to in-person instruction as soon and as safe as possible. I think that's a commitment that the entire board shares. It's a commitment that our administrative team shares. And I certainly hope it's the commitment that our community shares because it's truly going to be a community effort. So that transition is key in Fayette County.
We're also undergoing another transition of engaging in a superintendent search and selection process so ensuring that we have an engaging and open and transparent process in terms of the search, bringing in community partners and members and engaging them throughout that process, that's going to be key to me.
And then, long term, that will be the central theme is maintaining lines of clear communication and dialogue with the community. I certainly don't want that to be a top-down relationship. I want to find ways to engage our stakeholders, be it family members or staff members, students, or our community partners. Because it sounds cliche but it's true, it does take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to run a public education system. So as board chair, I hope that I can help facilitate those partnerships. They're going to be required as we move forward.
KOPSKY: Following up on that, do you envision setting up a new, a different system, especially as we're in this virtual world for that community engagement, for those stakeholders, like you mentioned, even down to students?
MURPHY: Yeah, absolutely, as a board team, we're in a number of conversations about how we can fine-tune and work on communication strategies and techniques, in some ways, the virtual environment that we've all become accustomed to. This opened up new avenues of communication so some of those things we may see continue once we get past the pandemic. Not just in finding ways to engage folks, not just in meetings but making sure that people have ways to access us, and that people understand the process.
You know, sometimes when they look at school boards, it may be opaque to them, what we do. But, making sure that folks recognize that the work that we do is important, but we're not the be all end all. Folks think that school boards are like the Green Lantern that if we just will it strongly enough then we can make it happen. It doesn't work that way we have to build partnerships and we have to engage in dialogue and we have to work together to accomplish these tasks and always prioritizing the children we serve in the district.
KOPSKY: How is your working relationship with Acting Superintendent Dr. Marlene Helm?
MURPHY: It's been very positive. Dr. Helm is not a stranger to Fayette County Public Schools. She came in at a very difficult time for the district. She has handled this task with aplomb, and she and I have a very strong effective working relationship and I think that's key to any successful Board of Education that that strong dialogue and communication, not just with the community but also between the board and district administration. So, Dr. Helm is committed to communicating and establishing that dialogue. She, again, is familiar with the district. She's committed to many of these same goals.
KOPSKY: Did you know her prior to this position or not until she stepped in as acting superintendent?
MURPHY: I knew of her. I didn't know her personally, but her reputation did precede her, certainly in a positive way. So, I was appreciative of the opportunity to work with her and get to know her professionally and personally.
KOPSKY: How do you plan to hold Dr. Helm and the future superintendent, whoever it may be, accountable and ensure that the board and yourself don't become a rubber stamp? I know you were highly critical of the past relationship between the board and the district. From conversations we've had over time, you've expressed that was a mission of yours to improve. How do you plan to actually make that happen?
MURPHY: You know, it reminds me of a Winston Churchill quote, "If we engage in a quarrel between the past and the present, then, then we risk missing out on the future." And so, this board team is future-focused and looking at ways that we can take whatever challenges our district faces and make them opportunities, and then also building upon the legacy that has been left because there are positive aspects. There are positive opportunities. There are opportunities for us to move forward as a district in terms of, you know, as I say communication and transparency, of continuing the work of equity in our district. That's a priority this board shares and recognizing as I said that this is about-this is about building relationships and partnerships, not just, again with community stakeholders, but also with the administration, with Dr. Helm and with whoever comes on board as the superintendent full-time. We want them to know that they have a board team that is willing to work with them as a working team in partnership and moving forward with the shared goal of ensuring that every child receives a quality public education in Fayette County. And if we can focus on those shared goals and work together in achieving them then I think that we will be very successful.
KOPSKY: But not afraid to challenge them? You know, 'we hope that it can be one way, but not afraid to challenge them.' Is that fair to say?
MURPHY: I mean, dialogue is two-way. You know, dialogue, certainly when we say that we want it to be a conversation, and the board does have an important role of oversight. But at the same time, the board can't be in all places at all times, right? So we have to rely on the work being done on the ground, and trust that the mission and goals of the district are being carried out. So, to me, as we look ahead, I think that the relationship between the Board of Education and the administration needs to be centered on two main priorities. And the first is dialogue, as I said, that two-way dialogue. And then the second is trust: a collaborative trusting environment where we work together to achieve those shared goals. And I think that's a commitment our whole board-team shares.
KOPSKY: Some concerns have been brought to my attention about anyone's ability to hold a full-time job teaching other students and also hold this role in a different county. What do you say to those naysayers and those who are skeptical about how you're going to be able to balance it or do you have any plans to put a year or two of teaching on hold? Can you address that concern?
MURPHY: Well, you know, I think that this is a very strong board team. We have over 60 years of combined educational experience with our team. I don't know if we've ever had it sitting and active classroom teachers as board chair. So, I think that's actually an asset, and we again have a team where it can't be just me, right? I'm going to need help from our board members and from our community. And that's how it should be anyway.
You know, we talk about boards of education and we talk about making sure that we open up access and opportunities and encourage folks to become engaged in the process. Boards of education are not designed in Kentucky certainly to be full-time positions. So, we need to look at how can we not only use the talents and the assets that we have on our board team, but how can we engage in outreach to the community at large to make boards of education an attractive position for folks, right? To help build the bench and recruit, that recruit diverse candidates who may be interested and leaving the district in the future because you know that's something that we as a board team are thinking about. We're future-thinking in that regard. So, we don't want to establish barriers to any position when it comes to engaging the community with our school district. So, we're about, you know, breaking barriers of access and, you know, making positions like this something that people in the community if they see, 'okay, I have something to contribute, I can make a difference,' then it's something that they pursue. So that's going to be one of the things that I will, will focus on and look at moving forward of establishing that balance and building those relationships so that I can trust that the work is being done and it's being done in partnership and it doesn't all fall on a single board member's shoulders. Sure, that's how and that's how we're going to be successful I feel.
KOPSKY: In that same vein, there's been some criticism about -- and I'm sure you've heard it -- teaching in a county that has done some in-person days, and being here in a county where there's an argument on all sides about what to do with school. What do you say to those people who are saying, 'this is highly hypocritical?'
MURPHY: Well, I will say, one, you know we have to be careful with an apples and oranges comparison, right? You know, the district where I teach is significantly smaller, and has fewer logistical hurdles to contend with than Fayette County Public Schools, number one.
Number two, I'm not involved as a school board member in the county where I teach so those decisions generally are above my paygrade. So certainly, I mean, they do ask for staff input and we do have those conversations and my position as a classroom educator does lend me some insight and my conversations with the administrators in Fayette County Public Schools. So, it's not a situation where well you know, 'Tyler Murphy is saying that it's safe to go to school in Boyle County, but it's not safe to go to school in Fayette County.' It's a complex situation. It's not just data and the data is part of it, but it's also multiple considerations, and we have an administrative team in Fayette County that is working each week in concert and in conversation with local public health officials who are responding to the needs and the health care realities in our community.
In Boyle County, we have an administrative team that is working in concert with public heath officials. They're responding to the realities of the community. So, you know, that's the thing with the situation we find ourselves in is these public health matters are very much community-specific and community-driven. So, all of the data and the research and so forth has to be contextualized in with the community that we're dealing with and the other factors that go into educating our students."
KOPSKY: You entered this role during a time that this district really isn't a bit of a crisis. You know, teachers disagreeing with each other on what to do, parents disagreeing, students some of which failing classes they maybe never would have failed; a superintendent suddenly passing away. There's a lot of fear; there's a lot of anxiety from all of those parties that I've spoken to. How do you plan to take the temperature down, and progress forward? You mentioned, getting students back in the classroom as a goal, how immediate can some of these things be addressed?"
MURPHY: As I mentioned earlier, whenever there are challenges, there are also opportunities. And this has been traumatic for everybody. Again, not just the, not just the pandemic. But also the crises going around across the nation that personally impacts our students, especially in a district that is majority-minority. The, as you mentioned, the sudden death of a superintendent. All of these are traumatic experiences. And what they also remind us is of the important and pivotal and critical role that our public schools play in the lives of our children, and in the life of our community. And if anything. I hope that this whole experience has underscored that fact and reminded our community that it has to be a partnership. That our public schools do not exist in a vacuum. They reflect the realities, both good and bad often of our communities. So, the question that we need to ask ourselves is, 'how can we take these challenges and turn them into opportunities and continue the work that needs to be done?' Because at the end of the day, I still have faith and belief in our public schools, because we have talented educators working on the ground every day to make what seems impossible possible. We have students that are doing the best they can in the face of extraordinary circumstances and odds while trying to grapple with the realities of the world around them and make sense of things that really even adults can't even make sense of right now. So, again, it is multifaceted, it is complex, and we want folks to understand that we're aware of that complexity, we're not ignoring those issues we recognize them, but at the same time, solutions cannot be just top-down. They're going to require partnership, they're going to require collaboration. Getting our kids back in school, that's going to require community effort when it comes to mitigation. When it comes to making choices about what can we do together to reduce community spread and create a public health environment where it is safe to move forward. And then moving forward, what can we do to encourage our legislators to prioritize getting shots in the arms of teachers? To have a coordinated national strategy to make sure that public schools are supported, that our educators have a safe environment in which to work? That can't be a board chair or a school board, acting by themselves. So, I implore anybody who shares that concern and that desire to get us back on stable footing is engaged in the process and encourage everyone else to engage as well, and to make public schools a priority. We can't only pay attention to public education when we're upset with it. We have-it's an ongoing process and we have to be engaged with it. So, as we move out of this pandemic. One of the areas that this board is going to be looking at is, how can we keep the community productively engaged in public education so that, you know, the motivation to contact us, just as isn't out of frustration or just as the amount of upset, but, but it's in partnership.
KOPSKY: Especially as the district is using the matrix to make decisions on when students will return to the classroom and it seems like that is the bar that the district is the threshold of what you all are using right now. Correct me if there's some other thing I need to be thinking about here. But, can the district work with the health department on the COVID-19 positivity rate and take out numbers such as the clusters in jails or in nursing homes? Are these conversations that have been had and details that are being considered?
MURPHY: Yeah, that's a good question and I think some of the misunderstandings about the matrix is the matrix is not just the numbers. So that's one part of it, right? That's the visual part of it which is why most folks will pay attention to that. But we look beyond the numbers. And again these are administrative decisions because the board has asked the administration to have an ongoing dialogue with local public health officials, and then, you know, communicate the results of that dialogue and those conversations have been ongoing. And they happen at least once a week. So, in addition to looking at the data, these leaders in the district are talking with public health officials they're looking at things like, you know, recommendations from the Department of Public Health at the state level, students and staff incident rates, isolations and quarantines, considerations for operation, operations and support, community versus institutional spread to your point about you know, 'are numbers just reflecting an outbreak in an isolated area?' So that's factoring in. Community trends, and then, of course, once we get to the point of the vaccine, the uptake of the vaccine will be another consideration. So yeah, it's important to emphasize to folks that this is not just a, 'okay this is the number for this week. This is our decision.' It's, 'okay, this is the number for this week. What does that mean? What can we learn from it?' And so, those conversations are happening with District administrators, and again, the folks on the ground. Because, you know, that's why, as I mentioned earlier, the board, can't be everywhere at the same time, right? So, we have to rely on the folks on the ground who know what it's going to take to get back to school, who are engaged in conversations with the public health experts to evaluate this information. And then, and then make those decisions in their appropriate context. So yeah, we have the matrix, but it's important for the community to understand the matrix is one part of the equation."
KOPSKY: You mentioned those people on the ground who are helping make that decision. Can you list, the positions they hold?
MURPHY: Yeah, so of course, Dr. Helm the acting superintendent. We have folks from our District Health Team, our District Health administrators, we have communications folks on there, we have operations and transportation folks on there, we have school administrators, and school chiefs who are in conversation with our principals and principals are in conversation with their educators. So, we want to make sure we have as many special education staff on there as well. So, we have as many voices at the table who can allow us to look at, again it's multifaceted, so allowing us to look at the multiple facets that would be involved in any decision to return to in-person instruction.
KOPSKY: I'm hearing story after story of teachers, appearing on screen, for just a few minutes, not the full class period, and parents as well as students raising concerns saying, 'I don't think I'm going to pass this class, and this is a class I never would have failed.' What plans are in place to help students who are falling behind? Will there be summer offerings to make up for lost time? Is this a conversation the Board is having? And how can we make this a reality for students who need help this summer?
MURPHY: Yes, and this is actually something that came up at our last board meeting. It is something that the Board has asked about, and it is something that our again our administration is considering. You know, we have an academic services team that is assessing, you know, 'what is what's going to be the impact? And then how can we once we get back to, in-person learning, how can we address the transition from remote instruction to in-person instruction?' So those conversations are ongoing. One of the things that I've encouraged and will continue to encourage is, again, engaging our experts in the District which are educators in those conversations and working in partnership again with our, our families and our communities to see what our options might be. So, we have a number of options much of it will depend on how the next few weeks unfold in terms of community transmission of COVID-19 and what the timeline looks like. But, that is absolutely a priority for the District moving forward and that transition that post-COVID transition is going to be key and it's going to be something that this board team will support and facilitate.
KOPSKY: And it may not even be post-COVID it could be amid COVID, right?
KOPSKY: You voted this week on the budget at the board meeting and we're receiving questions from both parents and teachers wondering why several million dollars are being spent on the Virtual Learning Academy? And when it serves such a small population of students. So my question to you: was this a matter of contract-fulfillment to have to continue with this or do you think that VLA is a good use of the district's money?
MURPHY: Well, just to clarify, we didn't vote on the budget. So, part of the budget process is an initial review, kind of like our budget staff says, 'okay these are kind of the things that we've penciled in. And then we have a draft budget will come up later in May. So, that was included on a PowerPoint slide as part of the meeting and I know it attracted a lot of attention. And if you listen closely in the meeting, they mentioned that this was if we had to continue, right? So, so if we're in a situation where we would have to continue some virtual learning options into next school year, that would be a conversation, right? So, there wasn't a vote, that hasn't been--the contract hasn't been renewed. Those would be conversations that we would have to have as a board team. At this juncture, I don't have enough information to say one way or the other. I do think that we would have to discuss those questions that you raise. I think the board would need to see some information about the program and about what our options might be. But of course, we--It's hard to predict where we will be next month, let alone next fall. So that, hopefully that helps clarify that situation. There was no decision made at the board meeting about VLA for next year, or about the budget. That was just to kind of just in case; we've factored these funds.
KOPSKY: You're talking about new lines of communication, it sounds like maybe that's still in the works? So for now, what is the best way for any stakeholders to get in touch with you and the Board? What do you suggest?
MURPHY: "Well, you know that my email is probably the quickest way to get a hold of me. It's just Tyler.Murphy@fayette.kyschools.us. You also have a way to email the entire board, using email@example.com. And as we get into, especially with the superintendent search process, we'll look at some ways to kind of create some online forums and make some of that feedback a little more user friendly. So, it's not just in the form of an email. We're in those conversations. But again, we are a District that is committed to the success of every child. We're committed to engaging stakeholders from educators, to family members, to community partners and everyone in between. So, I'm always willing and able to have a conversation with anybody. And I would encourage folks to work with us in partnership. Because, moving forward in the success of this District is going to be engaging our community in that process. Public education, must be a shared endeavor. And I hope that it will be everyone's priority as we move forward.