Sunday, June 25, 2000

Whalen sets goals for Ky. school post

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        From one school board to the next.

        This week, Paul Whalen, a former member of Fort Thomas' Board of Education, was appointed to the state Board of Education, which sets policy for all of Kentucky's 176 public school districts.

        He will join the board at their August meeting in Frankfort. The board meets every other month for two consecutive days.

        Mr. Whalen is a trial lawyer for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and a professor at the base's Air Force Institute of Technology.

        He and his wife, Teena, have three children. His stepdaughter, Ashley Tongret, 21, recently graduated from Harvard University. His daughter, Lucy, 7, and son Lars, 11, attend Ruth Moyer Elementary School.

        In an interview with Enquirer reporter Susan Vela, he talked about his long-standing interest in education and new role as an at-large member of the Kentucky Board of Education.

        When did you serve on the Fort Thomas school board? What were some of the accomplishments that brought you pride?

        (I was) on the school board from 1986 to 1999. It was a wonderful experience. I didn't know anybody on the school board, yet we tended to work well together. We accomplished a lot for a small school district.

        As a board member, you're only one of five. You accomplish things as a team. We started getting computers into the schools in 1988 or 1989. It was about a million and a half (dollar) bond issue. We were one of the first schools to get computers. We started it on our own without a lot of matching funds from the state or federal government.

        Did the appointment to the state Board of Education come as a surprise?

        A little bit. It was not something I specifically sought. However, back in April, Rep. (Jim) Callahan, (D-Wilder), had given me a call to see if I was interested. Obviously, I was.

        What will your role be as an at-large member? Why should locals be pleased?

        As a local person who is also a former school board member, I can be as responsive to the concerns of the Northern Kentucky education community as well as the community at large. Northern Kentucky is a diverse area. A lot of folks down state don't understand it. I offer some insight to local school districts. We have to compete with other parts of Kentucky.

        I see it as not only representing the Northern Kentucky region (but) also other areas of the state.

        What do you hope to accomplish?

        To bring the state board down to the community, maybe have more people feel like the state board belongs to them. I think that's important for as many people (as possible) to support education. Over 70 percent of the population does not have children in school, so it's important to get the message out that we need your help, we need your input.

        Another thing is to support staff. It's been my experience that our administrators do have some concerns in regard to turnover. It'd be nice if our good people wanted to stay.

        What will be the challenges?

        First of all, the big thing coming up is the appointment of a new commissioner. (Former Education Commissioner Bill Cody resigned in December.) The board is in the process of taking applications; they may start interviews in July. I'd like someone who has had some classroom experience, is a people person, can make hard decisions, work well with legislators and superintendents, and ... surrounds himself with people who are responsive to the needs of students and the schools.

        Why so much interest in education?

        It's sort of something I've fallen into.

        What is the state of education in Kentucky?

        We are doing better than we did 10 or 12 years ago but not as good as we should. We're right in the middle of the pack of student achievement, whereas we used to fluctuate from (state rankings of) 46 to 50. We should do better than that. We're trying to increase our attractiveness to business. We have to do even better to keep these folks here and make opportunities for our children.

        Ten years ago, the Kentucky Supreme Court found the state's school funding system unconstitutional. It sparked a lot of change. Do you think there's a discernible difference?

       Yes. There were quite a few districts that benefited and there were some that didn't, including Fort Thomas. It's only recently that Fort Thomas has received a new influx of money. In some respects, the intent should (be) ... for all the children to benefit.

        There still is a funding gap between Kentucky's poorest and richest schools. Will that ever change?

        I would hope so. I'm not sure the state Board of Education is going to be the instrument of that type of change. We can take a look and suggest to the legislature that some things be done.

        Where would you like to see Kentucky schools in 10 years?

        I'd like to see them better financed and perhaps a better system of financing found. I'd like to see higher student achievement throughout the state. That would be the No. 1 goal in all subject matters in writing and math and science.

        Is that truly feasible?

        It's possible. We have a lot of resources in Kentucky. It's just a matter of getting the support of the ... people and the politicians. I don't think we can afford not to do it.


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