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March 31, 2013

Distinguished Citizen of the Year Billy Coleman: Doing what they said couldn’t be done

In just half of his first four-year term, Billy Coleman has managed to do what previous Cullman County school superintendents couldn’t do in decades.

The school system was bleeding toward the red when Coleman took office, but in just over two years it’s now on a path to stability and has built more than one month’s fund reserve.

Under his watch, the school system went from no additional local financial support to having two new sources that should keep the budget balanced for decades to come.

Coleman also received the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce’s prestigious Emma Marie Eddleman Citizenship Award earlier this year.

In just over two years, Coleman has left an indelible mark on the Cullman County Board of Education, and if the school board has its druthers, it’s a mark that will never be erased.

This is why The Cullman Times has named Coleman its Distinguished Citizen of the Year for 2013, and why it was a fairly easy decision after looking at the laundry list of accomplishments he’s totaled in such a short amount of time.

After a failed campaign just a few years ago to have voters pass a countywide half-cent sales tax for education, Coleman took up the cause just months after being elected. After holding dozens of community meetings to explain the proposal to local residents, voters passed the tax the second time with a 53 percent majority.

In just a short time, the revenue has helped buy student equipment, repair outdated facilities and bring stability to a system that had been slipping toward bankruptcy ever since the economy turned south in early 2008.

But he didn’t stop there.

Coleman engineered another campaign last year, after poking and prodding state agencies all across Montgomery, to give the school system local control of federal land set aside for school use decades ago. Voters passed that measure as well, and the board is now working on a plan to sell or develop the property to establish a long-term trust that will function as another revenue source.

Coleman began his three-decade education career in 1983 as a teacher at Benjamin Russell High School in Alexander City. After several years, he came to West Point as a teacher and football coach, and eventually served as principal there for eight years.

Though he’s had a guiding hand in all the system’s recent accomplishments, it’s hard to get Coleman to admit it. As a former pastor, he gives credit to the Lord and those working around him every time he has a microphone in his hand.

“I’m overwhelmed and appreciative to be a part of such a great community,” Coleman said earlier this year, after accepting a Chamber award. “This school system is blessed because of the sacrifices made by so many people. My goal every day is to be a servant as Jesus Christ asks me to do. We get an opportunity to make a difference for what’s right.”

Longtime school board member Randy Hasenbein said Coleman’s excitement helps bring a new energy to a job he has been doing for more than 10 years. His enthusiasm is so infectious that Coleman has even developed a nickname around the central office: The Energizer Bunny.

“If he had a weakness it’d be his enthusiasm,” Hasenbein joked. “He just doesn’t get excited. But seriously, I have a great amount of respect for him and I think it makes me a better person being around him and working with him.”

After working with three superintendents during his tenure on the board, Hasenbein said Coleman possesses the true traits of a leader.

“He’s very professional and certainly a very ethical person, and that’s very important to me,” Hasenbein said. “Those are admirable traits, and he has those traits that great leaders have. He has all those attributes you seek in someone in a leadership position.”

One of Coleman’s biggest fans is his colleague at Cullman City Schools, Superintendent Dr. Jan Harris. The two have partnered together on many projects the past two years, and Harris said Coleman is an inspiration for leaders everywhere.

“I feel blessed to know Billy Coleman,” she said. “He’s an inspiration to me, a role model, and not a politician — he’s a statesman. He works for the good of all the people and I admire him so, so much.”

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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