By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press
SHELBYVILLE, Ky. - A divided Shelby County school board Tuesday hired longtime educator Elaine Farris as the first black superintendent of a public school system in Kentucky.
"I am overwhelmed and excited about this opportunity to serve in Shelby County public schools," Farris said after her selection by a 3-2 vote.
Cheers and applause erupted in the board room when Farris' selection was announced. Farris spoke to the board moments after the vote and wiped away what she called tears of joy.
Farris' hiring fulfilled a goal of civil-rights activists, long critical of the absence of black superintendents in Kentucky.
"I think it's outstanding," the Rev. Louis Coleman, director of the Justice Resource Center, said of Farris' hiring.
Beverly Watts, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, praised the Shelby County board for "taking this bold step."
Coleman, who closely followed the selection process, called Farris the most qualified - "whether she be black or white or polka dot." He said there are other black educators qualified to head school systems.
"It's historic, but it also shows how far the state of Kentucky has to go in education because there are many more Elaine Farrises out there that have been rejected by school systems," he said in a phone interview.
School board members expressed divergent views of Farris.
One member, Eddie Mathis, said he didn't consider Farris to be the best candidate, but promised to work with her and welcomed her.
Another board member was effusive in praise.
"In my view, Elaine Farris has the potential to be a superstar, and we look forward to her achieving that potential," said Sam Hinkle.
Farris downplayed the split vote over her hiring. "I think we'll all still be able to work as a team," she said.
Farris, 49, previously served as an elementary school principal in Clark County and was an administrator over 12 elementary schools in Fayette County. She began her career as a physical education teacher in 1982.
Farris holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Eastern Kentucky University, and is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Kentucky. She was one of the first three educators selected to participate in a state program to train and support minorities interested in becoming superintendents.
Participants in the Minority Superintendent Intern Program serve for one year as assistants to successful superintendents. Farris worked for the past year as an understudy to her predecessor, Leon Mooneyhan, who is retiring after 16 years as superintendent of the nearly 5,500-student district.
Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, confirmed that Farris is Kentucky's first black superintendent and is one of fewer than 20 women who hold the superintendent's job in the state. Blacks have served previously as interim superintendents but have not been hired for a permanent position.
Mooneyhan said he recommended Farris for the job, which had attracted 21 candidates. "She was the best candidate," he said. "So just because she is a minority is an added plus."
Coleman praised Mooneyhan's role in Farris' hiring, calling him the "Branch Rickey of education," a reference to the baseball executive who broke the sport's color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson.
During her year in Shelby County, Farris was involved in "every aspect of the superintendency," Mooneyhan said.
Farris was hired for a four-year contract and will be paid $108,000 per year. Blacks make up nearly 10 percent of the county's student population in the district 30 miles east of Louisville. Hispanics make up another 9 percent.
Farris said she always aspired to become a superintendent. "To have your dreams come true, it's overwhelming," she said.
Farris acknowledged the significance of her hiring.
"I feel like I've opened some doors for minority candidates," she said.
She said she wanted to elevate Shelby County to a top 20 school statewide for student performance. She said it now ranks 77th. She said she also wants to be a role model for students.
"I would like to see all the students look at me as an individual and judge me by the content of my character and not so much by the color of my skin," she said, echoing civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
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