Roper begins reign as ECS director

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Dr. David Roper took the reins as the new director of Elizabethton City Schools on Monday.
   His selection moved the Alabama native from his home state to Northeast Tennessee midway through the school year and only days before his first Board of Education meeting.
   "In a perfect world, you wouldn't start out as the director of schools on the 19th of January," Roper said with a laugh during an interview with the Star on Wednesday. An educator in Alabama for more than 25 years, Roper came to Elizabethton after spending almost five years as superintendent of Roanoke Alabama City Schools.
   Staff meetings, system briefings and preparation for his first Elizabethton Board of Education meeting tonight have highlighted Roper's first week on the job. He has also talked with former interim director Richard Culver as well as central office staff and the system's principals about school system issues and dynamics.
   Roper said he met former ECS directors Dr. Judy Blevins and Dr. Dale Lynch during a Tennessee School Boards Association meeting in Nashville in January. He said he did have mixed feelings about leaving Roanoke, but said the atmosphere of Elizabethton sold him on seeking the director's position.
   The three-year contract negotiated between Roper and Board of Education calls for $83,000 base salary and benefits including health insurance, performance step pay and business expense allowance totaling $97,000. Rumblings in the community have questioned the board's decision to approve the salary while granting faculty and staff a 1.5 percent pay raise this year.
   Critics of the school board also felt other items represented part of Roper's compensation package of roughly $108,000 -- a contention Roper bristled at.
   "At no time was I saying, 'you need to give me more money,'" said Roper of his negotiations with the School Board.
   He said that it was "unfortunate" some people had broadly interpreted items such as the schools' match payments to FICA, Medicare and Social Security -- which employers are required to do under federal law -- as part of his compensation package. Roper added that it was unlikely if most employed people were asked about their wages if he or she would include the taxes exempted from their paychecks as part of their salaries.
   Roper said his salary at Roanoke, which exceeded his salary at ECS, was never an issue in a school district that ranked dead last in the state of Alabama for local funding. He also said he would be pursuing his own health insurance rather than the insurance afforded him in the contract, representing a reduction of $6,200 annually in his compensation package.
   "This is my home," Roper added. "My intention is to put all that behind me, move forward and say we are beyond all that."
   Roper had served as superintendent of Roanoke City Schools since 1999 after working in Birmingham City Schools for more than 20 years. He earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of Alabama. He earned praise as a strong fiscal manager for the system and oversaw the system's increase in testing scores in the Stanford Achievement Test.
   With the state of Tennessee lawmakers still wrestling over taxation system and school funding, city and county governments have been left to juggle the amount of discretionary funding they can appropriate to their school districts.
   Elizabethton City Council appropriated $2.332 million for the city school system in the current fiscal year, but could free up little discretionary funding for the system. Roper said he would actively petition the city for funding based on proven needs of the school system.
   "We would want to make our case for the maximum available funding coming from the city," Roper said.
   Roper said his wife planned to reside in Alabama, where she is a special education teacher, until the end of the school year. Central office staff welcomed their new superintendent to his new position with a hand-made sign hanging inside the front door of the office administration building. Roper said Elizabethton's atmosphere and his own personal values made the position a perfect fit for him.
   "I know this is a good community," he said, "and I would not have thought about making it my home if I didn't think it was."