One finalist named for Fulton County Schools superintendent

Newly named Fulton County Superintendent finalist Mike Looney speaks during a Wednesday event announcing his pending appointment. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Newly named Fulton County Superintendent finalist Mike Looney speaks during a Wednesday event announcing his pending appointment. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The Fulton County school board named Mike Looney, superintendent of an affluent, fast-growing Tennessee district, as its only finalist for Fulton’s top job.

For nearly a decade Looney, 56, has led Williamson County Schools, a 48-school system with more than 40,000 students in Franklin, Tenn., south of Nashville.

The district is roughly half the size of Fulton, Georgia’s fourth-largest district with about 95,000 students and 106 schools.

The board reviewed applications from 40 qualified candidates and interviewed seven. The board, which by law must wait 14 days to allow for public comment before voting to hire Looney, plans to meet May 2 to make the appointment official.

“We believe that Dr. Looney is the right person, the right leader, at the right time for Fulton County Schools,” said board President Linda Bryant.

Looney said he’s worked both in school systems that are affluent and lower-income. He compared Williamson County’s demographics to north Fulton County’s makeup but said he’s also taught fourth- and fifth-grade math and reading in a low-income school in Pell City, Ala.

Fulton is a sprawling district divided into south and north sections, and some south Fulton parents have said the district needs to do a better job of ensuring their schools receive equitable support and representation.

Looney said his experiences will help him serve Fulton County’s “diverse community.”

“Every school community … deserves to have a voice and to be genuinely listened to and heard. And so I am 100% committed to that, and I will add that the school board has challenged me to do that,” he said.

Parents want a leader who is “a superintendent for everybody,” said Franchesca Warren, a leader of a south Fulton parents group. She’ll be looking for the next superintendent to be visible and engaged in the community, to listen to parents’ concerns about testing and instruction.

“It has to be somebody that can speak to all parents and that all parents are comfortable with,” she said. “We are in such a delicate place in Fulton County in that we need somebody who will continue to unify.”

Bryant said board members were impressed by Looney’s leadership abilities and the academic performance of districts he’s worked in.

She cited Williamson County’s rising ACT scores and increased student participation and pass rates in Advanced Placement and other rigorous classes.

Fulton County School Board President Linda Bryant (right) listens during a meeting to announce the finalist for superintendent on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

icon to expand image

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Julia Bernath, the board’s vice president, praised Looney’s attention to improving student achievement.

“He recognizes that all students can do better. He recognizes that not everybody goes to college. He knows that we’ve got some high performing schools that could do better as well, he’s got high expectations for all students,” she said.

In Tennessee, Looney made headlines for being named the state's superintendent of the year in 2016 and also for a 2018 incident at a high school that led to two assault charges against him, which a judge later dropped. The Tennessean newspaper reported that Looney was charged with assaulting a student and a parent as he responded to a "psychological emergency" involving a student.

Looney, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he was wrongly arrested and his record has been expunged. He declined to discuss specifics of the case, citing student privacy laws, but said he “interceded as appropriate” during the incident.

He said the school board voted unanimously to support him after viewing video of the incident, which was not publicly released.

Bryant said Fulton’s board discussed the situation with Looney.

“He was exonerated on all charges. The situation actually showed great leadership where he stepped in to help one of his staff under difficult circumstances,” she said, in a written statement.

Before his current post, Looney was the superintendent of Butler County Schools in Greenville, Ala., from 2005 to 2009. He previously worked as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama.

Looney, the father of four adult children, is a veteran of the U.S. Marines who worked in private business before launching his career in education. He’s a skydiver who falls from planes at 15,000 feet. He jokes: “My last name is Looney.”

Fulton County Schools superintendent finalist Mike Looney (left) greets individuals after being announced Wednesday as the sole finalist for the job. The board will vote on his hiring May 2. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

icon to expand image

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

He described himself as a leader who likes to be in the trenches and consults with others on decisions.

“You might see me riding a school bus or serving a piece of chicken at lunch, or teaching a third-grade classroom” he said.

His years of teaching, he said, are “some of the most humbling work that I’ve ever done.”

Fulton County has not released Looney’s proposed salary or other contract terms, though Looney said he expects to sign a three-year contract.

The vacancy was created by the abrupt departure of former superintendent Jeff Rose, who resigned last fall amid board discussions about extending his contract beyond its Oct. 31, 2019, expiration.

Rose cited personal reasons for leaving.

Fulton's next leader will be its fourth superintendent, not including interims, since spring 2008.