FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — After praising him for his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fulton County Board of Education extended Superintendent Mike Looney’s contract through 2024, including compensation changes. The three-year contract is the maximum allowed by the state.
When Looney was hired in 2019, his contract included a benefits and salary package of nearly $400,000 a year, placing him among the highest-paid superintendents among Georgia’s 189 public school districts.
School Board President Julia Bernath said at a Nov. 9 work session that details of Looney’s contract extension would not be made public until after the board’s attorneys had a chance to review them.
Fulton County Schools is the fourth largest school district in the state. In mid-March 2020, it was also the first in Georgia to move to remote learning after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus.
Under Looney’s leadership, school board members said the district has managed to increase ACT scores and graduation rates, create two new STEM schools and partner with Auburn University to offer all public high school students access to free or reduced-cost classes — all while juggling hot-button issues.
At the start of the school year, Looney received stiff criticism for requiring face masks. Then earlier this month, he was criticized again for reversing the rule, but this time by parents who support mandatory mask-wearing.
Board member Katie Reeves, who represents Alpharetta and Milton, said she can’t begin to imagine what it’s been like to sit in his seat over the past few years.
“I’m not going to say that everybody loves every decision that you’ve made, because that’s just not possible, but I think you provided really solid leadership,” Reeves said. “More importantly, I think that from what you have shown us, you and your team did not take your eye off the ball – instruction is key. It’s not just recovering from what our students have been through.”
Board member Linda McCain, who represents Johns Creek and Alpharetta, said she admires Looney’s willingness to be “out front and take the heat for decisions that were not going to be popular.”
“We see in our own district, as it is around the country, people are pretty evenly split on their feelings about how this pandemic played out and what they thought the right moves were,” McCain said. “And with the constant shifting messaging coming from [Washington,] D.C. or down at the Gold Dome, etc., you just stayed the course, and I appreciate your courage.”
McCain said Looney has the right characteristics to lead the district, and she thanked him for taking the “once in a lifetime opportunity to change the trajectory of teaching in Fulton County Schools” by using federal funds to chip away at some of the learning loss caused by the pandemic.
Earlier this year, the school board decided to use more than half the funds it received from the American Rescue Plan to invest in a $90 million literacy program, “Every Child Reads.” The program includes tools to evaluate its results.
Over three years, the district plans to train thousands of employees on how best to teach reading and writing. It also plans to hire 59 literacy coaches for each of the district’s elementary schools to work with students and support teachers. A new literacy director will be tasked with overseeing the effort.
Board member Franchesca Warren, who represents areas of South Fulton County, thanked Looney for the initiative.
“I appreciate your focus on reading,” Warren said. “Reading is an equity issue, and I appreciate you being diligent enough to say we have to focus on this.”
After taking a moment to tell board members about his recent experience serving chicken fingers and broccoli at a local school, Looney said he doesn’t see himself as leading from the front.
“I see myself as walking with the troops,” Looney said. “… I am absolutely committed and resolute in making sure that all of our students – all of our students – have every opportunity to learn to their maximum potential. … We are blessed with having great students and team members and building leaders and board members and parents and community members, and we have our best days yet ahead of us.”