- Cullman, Alabama

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May 12, 2014

Payne, Ross early favorites for county schools’ appt. superintendent

The Cullman County Board of Education does not plan to vote for its new appointed superintendent until at least May 20, but members narrowed the field considerably Monday night.

Board members discussed the selection late into the night at a specially-called meeting and broke down their top three candidates to narrow the field.

Vinemont High School principal Dr. Brandon Payne was the clear front-runner among the board at this point in time, and was the top pick for five board members. Robertsdale High School Principal Dr. Craig Ross was in the number two position for several board members, and led two personal short lists. Lee County Schools director of student services and federal programs Dr. Jason Wright was in second place on a handful of personal lists.

Those three were formally selected as finalists.

Northwest Georgia RESA principals’ center coordinator Dr. William Thompson McCown, who was a final five candidate along with Tuscaloosa City Schools assistant superintendent of curriculum Dr. Tena Elisabeth Davis, removed himself from consideration after accepting a different job in another system. Several board members noted McCown, who was the only candidate with superintendent experience, would have been on their short lists.

Board president Chris Carter said Monday’s meeting was meant to allow the board a chance to “find a consensus of where we stand.”

The board has set another specially-called meeting for Tuesday, May 20 at 5 p.m. in the central office board room to potentially make a final selection and contract offer.

While discussing the candidates, several board members noted Payne’s familiarity with the system and the fact that he already has deep local ties as one reason they believe he would be a good fit.

“I looked at Dr. Payne being in the system, knowing what we’ve done in the system, combined with the success he’s had at Vinemont,” Carter said.

Board member Jason Speegle noted it was a close race in his mind between Payne and Ross, due to the fact that both finalists brought a “blue collar” approach to leadership from their backgrounds and experience in the business world. Before attending college to become an educator, Ross worked in the construction industry.

“I liked the way they worked their way up into education,” he said. “Both have shown improvement in test scores and experience in business.”

Board member Kenny Brockman said he was already a fan of Payne from his lengthy service record in Cullman County, and noted his interview and preparedness shined him during the search process.

“When I saw the five, I already had Brandon up here to start with,” Brockman said, holding his hand above his head. “The candidates were good, but no one was able to match him. With Brandon, you really know what you’re going to get.”

Long-time school board member Randy Hasenbein said it was a tough decision to parse his list down to just two candidates, but finally placed Payne at first and Ross at second.

“I see things with Brandon and he really impressed me in his interview,” he said. “I saw him speak from the heart, and when you have five candidates so equally strong, why not look locally? We want someone with strong roots.”

Fellow board member Gene Sullins echoed those sentiments, noting Payne ‘s “roots are planted here and he’s not going anywhere.”

“He’s local and I can’t think of anything he hasn’t been through,” Sullins added.

Though the majority of the board seemed to favor Payne, members Wendy Crider and James Thompson both had Ross at the top of their lists.

Crider said all the candidates were impressive, but noted Ross’ passion stood out to her after spending a day with him touring Cullman County. Payne was her second choice.

“I saw the connection he made with each person,” she said. “When he’d walk into a class, you’d see eyebrows raise and smiles come on. He was extremely humble and has a unique background that could really be an inspiration to students. “

Thompson also had Ross at the top of his list, with Payne second, and noted his “energy” was a major selling point.

“I think the energy he could bring to our school system could be tremendous,” he said.

Both Crider and James plan to take site visits to the home schools of the three candidates within the next week, and report their findings back to the board.

The minimum salary for the position is $115,000, with a final contract negotiable based on experience and demonstrated success.

Current superintendent Billy Coleman, who has volunteered to retire from his elected position to make way for the appointed superintendent under the newly created system, is set to retire July 1. Coleman and the school board petitioned the state legislature to make the change to an appointed superintendent, noting they believed it would be in the best interest of the system.

The new superintendent would start on July 1, matching up with Coleman’s planned retirement date.

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 134.

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