By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Nowlin has had a good five-year run as the head of the Opelika-based system. But come January, he’ll take on the biggest challenge of his career to date, as he becomes the new superintendent of the Jefferson County Schools.
Nowlin was chosen by the board of education last week to replace Dr. Phil Hammonds, who retires in February after nine years at the helm.
“It’s kind of a natural career move for me,” Nowlin said. “I’ve always wanted to seek out more challenging opportunities, and a larger system like this presents a wonderful opportunity. Frankly, I wouldn’t have considered it if Jefferson County didn’t have a reputation of having a good school board and a good superintendent. It has possibilities to grow and get better, and in some places that’s not the case. If you’re a career superintendent, you want to move into situations where you have a chance to grow and to be successful.”
The Lee County system is roughly one-third the size of Jefferson County.
“There’s more of an organizational chart you have to work through, and when you have 4,000 employees, there’s not as much of a chance to get face time with each of them,” Nowlin said. “It’s important to have lines of communication open where nobody’s cut off from me, but where the folks who are on other rungs of the organizational chart can handle things as they come to them.”
One reason cited by Board President Jennifer Parsons for selecting Nowlin over two other candidates was his familiarity with how Alabama finances its public schools, which is significantly different from states such as Georgia and Indiana, home to the two other finalists for the job.
“The bulk of Jefferson County’s revenue comes from property taxes, close to $80 million as I recall, and about $25 million of that has to go to matching the state allocation,” Nowlin said. “In 1995, the current funding structure was changed to where all systems have to contribute the equivalent of 10 mills of property taxes just to receive state matching funds. The rest comes from three other millages.”
About two-thirds of the state education trust fund comes from income taxes, and one fourth from sales taxes. It’s something Nowlin is very familiar with, having taught college courses on school financing at Troy and Jacksonville State universities.
“At the state level we’re seeing serious issues. Local systems that don’t have much of a tax base are still in severe financial straits because we’re getting about $1 billion less than before the recession,” Nowlin said. “The state used to full fund transportation, but the state legislature cut transportation 25 percent. Diesel fuel has gone up significantly since that cut. County systems’ transportation bill tends to be a lot higher than city systems because they cover a lot more miles with fewer students.”
Having said that, Jefferson County Schools are in good financial shape, Nowlin said. “The system has more than two months operating reserve, and the state requires at least one month, so that’s good thing.”
Nowlin was retained by the Jefferson County board some time ago to perform a periodic job evaluation on Hammonds, the man whom he is succeeding. “I think that’s just a combination of coincidence,” Nowlin said. “I was invited to apply by their search firm Alabama Association of School Boards. I did have a good impression of the board and their professionalism and how they worked together. I did come to understand how well-regarded Dr. Hammonds is, and that made me feel more comfortable in applying.”
Nowlin is originally from southern middle Tennessee town of Collingwood, just north of Florence and Muscle Shoals. His wife, Linda, is a retired kindergarten teacher. His daughter Nancy attends UAB, studying to become a teacher of English as a second language.
And as far as his rooting interest in college teams — well, he is the superintendent of Lee County, after all.
“War Eagle!” he said, with enthusiasm.