York schools Superintendent Russell Booker, credited with reshaping the district and boosting student achievement, has resigned.
Booker announced at a school board meeting Tuesday that he accepted a position with Spartanburg School District 7. He is scheduled to start in July as associate superintendent for planning and administration and the district's superintendent-elect.
His last day in York will be June 30.
"Spartanburg School District 7 has presented to me a long-term career opportunity that will enable me to move my family back home," the Spartanburg native wrote in a letter to York school board chairman Chris Revels.
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Booker, in an interview, said he made his decision about three weeks ago.
"I went back and forth because I love this district," he said.
The 39-year-old will get a raise from $154,000 a year to $170,000. He will be the Spartanburg district's highest-paid employee, said current superintendent Thomas White, who earns slightly less than $156,000.
York educators and school officials described Booker as a born leader whose innovative approach and community outreach efforts have transformed the district.
All wished him success but said they will mourn the loss.
"There have been many tears shed over his announcement," said human resources director Maria Duncan.
"He has been all about building relationships from day one, and that has inspired me to be a better leader in my building," said Dietrich Long, principal at Hickory Grove/Sharon Elementary. "We know that our small community couldn't hold him for long. There will be a big hole."
When Booker was hired in December 2005, he took on a district in need of new facilities and innovation.
A failed multimillion dollar 2003 bond package kept the district from building a high school that educators said was needed.
Booker began meeting with residents and launched an information campaign. In 2007, 61 percent of voters approved $85 million to build a new high school and revamp other buildings.
That "was the most exciting thing," said Booker's administrative assistant Renee Webb. "We desperately needed it."
Booker also took on student achievement.
"We've put some things in place instructionally to build a foundation," he said.
One of his first moves was to add Measure of Academic Progress tests across the district. The computerized tests allow teachers to periodically evaluate students' academic growth.
Next came a literacy push, in which he placed literacy coaches in nearly every school to help teachers with lessons.
Despite occasional dips in test scores, student achievement has been on the rise.
Science scores on state tests in grades three through seven have jumped in the last two years. Sixth-graders, in that time, went from 57 percent passing to 74 percent.
Hickory Grove/Sharon Elementary and Harold C. Johnson Middle schools have received state awards for narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
SAT college entrance exam scores are up, too. That's part of what Booker calls a district-wide effort to create a "college-going culture," in which students are eager and ready for college.
He also has worked to outfit schools with new technology. Teachers got grading software to analyze student performance better. More than 100 classrooms now have digital white boards, or chalk-board-size interactive touch-screens.
"The thing that I have been most proud of," Booker said, "is the climate we continue to create."
His staff agrees.
"He's created a very open climate," said Duncan, who's been in the district for 30 years. "When I started, it was this ivory tower kind of thing ... unapproachable."
Booker, she said, "has been very open to people's thoughts and considerate."
"He loves his principals to wear shirts and ties," said Hunter Street Elementary principal Kevin Hood. "And he models that. He's a true professional."Booker will leave York schools during a rocky time for public education. State funding cuts have hit school districts hard and educators expect more cuts next school year.
In Spartanburg, Booker will oversee many of the district's daily operations. He'll start as an associate superintendent, but the intent is that Booker will succeed White when he retires as superintendent.
The two have known each other since 2000, when White recruited Booker as principal of Landrum High School near Spartanburg. White, who hasn't set a retirement date, said he first approached Booker about working in Spartanburg a year ago.
"I've been working on him a long time," he said. "Russell has an uncanny ability to bring diverse groups together ... and get them to focus like they haven't before. Through creativity and innovation, (he) finds partnerships and solutions where others thought there were none."
The York school board has yet to decide how to replace Booker.
"We can't afford to sit idle from now until June," Chairman Revels said.
The goal, he said, is to have someone in the position by July 1.
"It's been a hard pill to swallow," Revels said. "He's done such an excellent job. ... He's brought us such a long way. Our loss is Spartanburg's gain."
Russell W. Booker
The York school district hired Booker as its eighth superintendent in December 2005.
He began his career in 1991 as a teacher in Monroe, N.C. He went home in 1992 to Spartanburg where he worked as a teacher, counselor, coach, principal and district administrator in Spartanburg School District 1.
Booker received a masters, educational specialist, and doctorate degree in administration from the University of South Carolina-Columbia.
Booker lives in York with his wife, Sheryl, and two sons, Grant, 7, and Maxwell, 5.