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CARROL A. “BUTCH” THOMAS JR. by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Only days after coming to Beaumont, Texas, as superintendent in July 1996, Carrol Thomas Jr. found himself embroiled in the raging issue of the moment for his school board—the adoption of a health textbook that some vocal conservatives considered too risqué. Like most matters in Beaumont, divisive racial politics figured mightily.


Thomas promptly formed a communitywide review committee with diverse representation to closely examine the book’s actual contents under his watchful eye. The committee quickly rallied behind the instructional text, leading to a unanimous adoption by the school board.

In the view of Martha Hicks, a board member then as now, “This was a man who knew how to take care of business.”

Thomas has only enhanced his reputation as a turnaround artist over his seven years in Beaumont. He has restored considerable faith in the local public schools by significantly raising student performance and stabilizing the governance of the 20,800-student school system in southeastern Texas.

While many describe him as affable and accessible, Thomas also maintains a decidedly no-nonsense approach to his work. Asked by an interviewer recently what he considered his “biggest blooper” as a school leader, he chose to discuss his need to make better personnel assignments. More publicly, Thomas has applied his “no excuses, just results!” motto to elevate the entire academic enterprise.

The superintendent introduced a policy on reteaching and retesting that wasn’t widely embraced at the outset but now is considered one of the most effective tools in bringing “exemplary” and “recognized” status to 18 of the 30 schools in Beaumont and recognized status to the district as a whole for student performance on the state’s former testing program. His policy promotes mastery by allowing students to retake a local exam, only after they participate in afterschool classes and Saturday tutorials.

“Kids who are behind have to run harder,” says Thomas. “No extracurriculars are allowed until those tutorials are complete. … Lots gets in the way of kids learning.”

The retesting policy has spurred some unintended consequences that contribute to the bottom line—sports coaches and club advisers who run their own remedial sessions to ensure eligibility of their students.

The marked improvement in academics has lifted district enrollment to its highest level ever and infused a new sense of well-being in the community at large. “The perception of the schools is totally reversed,” says Jim Rich, president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce who points to an explosion in housing growth on Beaumont’s west side.

Hicks, who is one of five current board members who hired Thomas seven years ago, believes the superintendent’s sense of values about the best of human nature permeates the way he runs the school system and contributes richly to the reason racial politics has disappeared from the scene.

“He took a dysfunctional team and helped us learn and grow together,” says Hicks, the board president, who is white.

Two years ago, the Texas Association of School Administrators selected Beaumont as the outstanding school board in the state. Two years previous, Thomas served as Texas superintendent of the year. The National Alliance of Black School Educators honored both board and superintendent with its top awards in the same year, a first.

Earlier in his career, he apparently pulled off a similar turnaround of fortunes as superintendent of the North Forest Independent School District. Thomas yanked the Houston-area district from the state warning list up to fully accredited status in a single year, a remarkable leap in performance. By some written accounts, he accomplished comparable feats as principal of a downtrodden high school and junior high school in Lubbock.

To keep such talent at its helm, the Beaumont board has taken some extraordinary contractual steps, making Thomas one of the nation’s best-paid superintendents at $244,000 a year and offering $100,000 incentives for him to complete each three-year contract he signs.

Even in tough financial times, community leaders suggest Thomas’ contributions merit such rewards. “My perspective is we’d be hard pressed to find anyone better,” says Rich of the chamber of commerce. “It’s a significantly harder job than city manager or chamber president.”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS:
Butch Thomas Jr.

Currently:
superintendent, Beaumont, Texas

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