Neil Nuttall completes 7 1/2 years as Clovis Municipal Schools superintendent this week, leaving Tuesday for North Central Missouri College where he becomes its president.
Nuttall leaves behind a legacy of academic vision and infrastructure that will serve Clovis students and the community for decades to come. And, as with all such agents of change, few will remember him in a neutral light. Faculty and staff often saw their leader either as controlling and uncompromising or forward-thinking and unwavering.
Yet even his most harsh critics should find much fault with his success at improving the district’s property and equipment assets.
He led efforts that secured more than $43 million in local, state and federal funding for what he calls the “skeletal structure of our organization.”
Classrooms have been remodeled and expanded, student labs feature state-of-the-art equipment and technology, even parking lots and roofs have been repaired after years in which they seemed a low priority.
“I do not believe there has been another time in our school’s history where there has been this level of funding for facilities,” Nuttall wrote in a recent memo to teachers.
That’s not bragging, but a statement of fact about a group effort that paid off. The benefit of such improvements is that learning is less likely to occur when students, teachers and staff are uncomfortable or lack the technological equipment needed to help challenge their minds.
Clovis’ academic progress under Nuttall is not as easy to track because state testing measures have changed in the past decade and continue to evolve. Yet few can argue that Nuttall has been anything but visionary since his arrival in 1997.
For example, Lincoln-Jackson Arts Academy has risen from the ashes of two years on state probation and about to be taken over by the state, to today’s status as a learning institution many hold up as a standard of measurement for all New Mexico elementary schools.
A culinary arts program has been added and a new emphasis has been placed on a developmentally delayed preschool program.
As well, the district’s dropout rate, once as high as 12 percent, has plummeted to 4 percent under Nuttall’s leadership.
All of these things, from the brick-and-mortar improvements to the focus on at-risk students, reflect well on the work Neil Nuttall started and completed. But for all the good he’s accomplished, his critics will long think of two words when they remember his tenure: blue jeans.
Nuttall was successful in his efforts to prevent teachers from wearing blue denim in the classroom. That dress-code controversy during the 2003-2004 school year brought out his most vocal critics, who used it as a prime example of allegations that he discouraged individual expression and went to extremes in efforts to control details that most would consider insignificant.
Nuttall’s policies were exclusive, not inclusive, one critic stated last week. He did not respond well to criticism and his unwillingness to bend was not a sign of strength, his critics claim, but a personality trait that divided the district and took the focus off learning.
The fact that some staff and teachers could get their britches in an uproar over blue jeans in a professional setting where they are the role models speaks to the shallowness of the entire issue. But when teachers drew their line in the sand, Nuttall chose to cross it rather than negotiate new boundaries and the battle scars never healed on either side.
Despite his flaws — and we all have them — where Nuttall grew a lot in seven years was to communicate his points by reasoning rather than arguing louder than others. And we appreciated the fact that, whatever the controversy du jour, Nuttall seldom avoided talking to the media or the public.
Most important, though, few could argue that he cared about students and their academic success, for which he was ultimately charged.
“Every meeting I have ever attended with this man contained the words or conveyed the message ‘Whatever is best for kids,’” one school official wrote in an e-mail in September.
We wish Neil Nuttall well and expect him to achieve much success in Missouri. And we thank him for his service to Clovis schools.
Next Sunday: What are the skills and traits needed in the next superintendent of Clovis Municipal Schools?