As superintendent for the Williamson County School System, Mike Looney is responsible for some of the state’s most lauded public schools. Since his arrival in 2009, the county’s principals and faculty have raised the bar in terms of academic performance, as evidenced by earning straight A’s for academic achievement on this year’s report card from the Tennessee Department of Education.
Yet Looney knows this is no time for complacency; his schools must do better in ensuring students of all backgrounds receive the same quality of education — a metric known as the “gap measure.” Not to mention that his school board has charged him with elevating the system’s arts, academics and athletics programs to national prominence.
This is no small task under the best of circumstances. Ask it of a system in a county that spends less per student than the statewide mean, and it might be asking for a miracle.
But talk with Looney, a pragmatic optimist, and he makes the task seem plausible. Perhaps he’s unfazed by a county commission famous for squeezing pennies because his time as an explosives expert in the U.S. Marine Corps taught him not to make excuses. Maybe running away from home as a child fortified him with a wealth of patience and endurance to call upon when listening to high-strung parents argue their points emotionally rather than rationally. Maybe having a good reason to leave home in the first place steeled him to be a realist without sacrificing vision or passion — he seems to have both in abundance. Looney, is a father and a husband … and a skydiver with 368 jumps so far in the past year.
What time do you get your day started?
Sometimes I’m here by 5 a.m. This is a busy time of year — we’re ending the semester and starting the budgeting process. And we’re getting ready for the legislative session, which is going to be a huge thing again this year.
What will be huge about it?
There is a lot of talk about proposed legislation that we have an interest in, [involving] vouchers and charters. There were some bills last year that we opposed, like doing away with the teacher-salary matrix and increasing class size. Obviously we want to keep our eyes on the ball on those issues.
What’s your desired outcome on those issues?
Defeat, defeat, defeat. We feel like we have found the balance between academics, athletics and fine arts, and we don’t want anybody interfering with that work. So, to the extent possible, we have a protectionist viewpoint.
You ran away from home as a kid to escape abuse. What was life like as a runaway?
I ended up in juvenile detention as a habitual runaway. During all of those episodes, I would get sent back home, and I would run away again.
But you managed to continue your education during this. Was school a form of stability?
Actually, it was a source of food and friends. And honestly, I often relied upon friends for shelter. I would get to stay at one of my friend’s house for a week or so. Then they would get tired of me and I would move on to another friend’s house. So school was a source of stability.
How did this view shape your view on public education?
I found that the system was not attentive to me. I was the smelly kid, I was the kid who didn’t have washed hair or combed hair, and those things went unnoticed or unattended to. And I thought, how could that be? And it gave me empathy for students who need a little extra lift and a little extra attention, and frankly, love.
When did you leave the formal education system?
I was in my senior year, and there was a family episode that caused me to leave home for the final time. I was 17 and convinced my parents to allow me to join the Marines. I was gone three days later.
Did you go to Parris Island?
I did, and I loved ever minute of it.
I loved the structure. I loved that you could count on people. I felt valued. I loved the camaraderie. It was just a wonderful experience for me.
You were brought into the Williamson County School System as an agent of change. Are you happy with the progress?
We are making notable strides and tremendous progress. But I’m not pleased with where we are with the implementation of foreign language yet. That’s become a bigger mountain than I was prepared for. I’m not pleased with our progress toward closing the achievement gaps for some of our subgroups.
You can’t become nationally recognized without money. Is your budget well funded?
There’s an impression, right or wrong, that students in the wealthiest county of Tennessee would naturally have the best facilities and the highest test scores. Is that a misconception?
It absolutely is. When you look at our expenditures per pupil, we’re well below the state average. When I speak to public groups, people are amazed at two things: 1) that we spend as little as we do, and 2) that we’re producing the results that we are. And I must admit to you that the parents of our students are supplementing what the taxpayers are providing. We have the financial wherewithal in our community to support public schools, we’re just doing it in a very different way.
Are financial constraints preventing the system from advancing toward the school board’s goal of national prominence?
It’s a constant fight. And when I stand before the county commission arguing for money, I know it’s an uphill battle. We don’t need as much money as some of the other districts are getting, but we also don’t have enough to accomplish the things we are charged with doing. If we could get to the state average of spending per pupil, it would move mountains on the educational front in Williamson County.
How many new schools are on the horizon in Williamson County?
Four in the next five years.
Is the funding in doubt to build these?
Yes. It’s a continuous challenge to deal with the growth that we have. Talking about the political scene, there are proposals that are being discussed of allowing public school students from neighboring counties to attend Williamson County schools through vouchers. That’s one of the reasons we have our eye on the political ball: How do we make sure we don’t have to add for additional students who don’t even live in the confines of Williamson County? It’s a pretty complicated organization with complicated politics.
Why is the “gap measure closure” important?
I’ll use myself as an example. I was homeless, I was a Title I kid, I wasn’t the highest performing kid in the school, and I probably wasn’t the most liked kid in the school. I got into trouble. That in no way was an indication of whether I could learn or how smart I was. I think we have an obligation to help students wade through the mess of real life to realize their potential, to help them to lift themselves out of life’s circumstances.
How do you meet those needs?
About 5 percent of our students have some significant interference keeping them from being successful. These kids get more support, often through after-school tutoring or before-school tutoring.
Was the recent unsuccessful push by school board members to rename the Winter Break as “Christmas Break” a healthy debate to have?
I think so; debate is good. I’m a Christian. I celebrate Christmas and Easter. But from my perspective as the leader of this school system, renaming the breaks wasn’t my main concern.
How many skydives do you have?
I have 368 this year. It’s an outlet for me that goes back to my military experience of doing dangerous things, I guess. I was an explosives expert in the Marines. It makes me realize that the world can be chaotic, but you still can control things. I am able to control what I do in the sky even though I’m falling at 120 mph. So, in some sense, it’s organized chaos.
Are there parallels between skydiving and leading a school system?
I think many. Conquering your fears, believing in yourself and believing in others, and having faith that everything is going to work out in the end.