When Dana Bedden came to lead the Richmond County district in 2007, he had ideas for the long haul. But when contract negotiations for a second term did not work out with school board members, the Irving Independent School District in Texas wasted no time recruiting him.
A year and a half after leaving Augusta, he said his new home is serving him well, even though he has had to handle issues from budget cuts to immigration debates.
“It’s been baptism by fire,” he said in a phone interview last week.
Bedden started work with Irving in July 2010 on a three-year contract. In March, the school board voted to extend his contract through 2016 and maintained his $244,400 salary, which he called a “vote of confidence” in his work.
Soon after taking office, he handled the state slashing $14 million from his school system, which he said was the first time in about 10 years that Texas had reduced education funding. To balance the budget, the system had to make cuts, including $2 million in operational costs and 10 layoffs at the central office alone. Although the state cuts created budget issues, He said he also helped gain the district a five-star rating from the state comptroller for strong financial management.
Bedden said his district is very progressive. It’s home to the country’s largest net-zero energy middle schools, on which construction began before he arrived, although he helped plan and select staff for its opening this year. The school, Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, produces all the energy it burns and is powered by solar panels, solar rods and windmills.
Like Richmond County, Irving did not make federal “adequate yearly progress” goals in 2011, but has 80 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards in math, 78 percent in science and 90 percent in English, he said. He works with a similar economic demographic to Richmond County, with 81 percent of the 35,000 students on free or reduced-price lunch compared to Augusta’s 74 percent.
A difference is that Richmond County schools are majority black, while Irving’s are 71 percent Hispanic. Of those, 13,000 are English language learners, which Bedden said has been a topic of debate amid immigration legislation in the country.
“The law says we have to educate kids regardless, so (race) is irrelevant to us,” he said. “Still, people look at the school system and feel like serving those kids is draining their resources.”
The transition to Texas was an easy one for Bedden, he said, because Irving is a bustling, diverse city with a strong culture for his family. Looking back at his time in Augusta, he said he has only good memories.
Richmond County school board member Jack Padgett Jr. said he gets occasional phone calls from Bedden checking up on Augusta. Padgett said the events surrounding Bedden’s departure was frustrating at the time, but it ended on good terms. Toward the end of his three-year contract in 2010, Bedden had requested a raise to his $185,000 base salary so he would make “market value” based on the average superintendent pay in Georgia.
When school board members did not present a suitable contract in time, Bedden started looking elsewhere and was soon recruited by Irving. At a press conference that March to address his departure, he told the community, “It just didn’t work out.”
“We were fortunate to have him in the time we did,” Padgett said. “‘Brilliant’ would probably be the best way to describe Dr. Bedden. He was a quick thinker so that you could walk down the hallway with him and get three decisions made in that time.”
When Bedden left, he said the decision was “never about money,” and that his focus then and now is on education.
“Education is the great equalizer,” he said. “Education is the 21st-century civil rights issue. If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”