Ed McNeel, Corbin Schools Superintendent, begins his 21st year on this job this August.
For Corbin Independent School’s Superintendent Ed McNeel, the district motto "Striving to Be the Best" is more than just a wishful slogan or hopeful goal.
It’s daily inspiration.
This year, McNeel became the longest serving superintendent among all of the Kentucky’s 174 school districts. He is entering his 21st year at the helm of Corbin Schools.
At 68, McNeel said he is often frustrated that he isn’t as physically vigorous as he was at age 48 when he first took the job to lead the school district. But the desire to see continual improvement in Corbin’s schools remains strong.
"I think for Corbin to survive, we have to do the best we can do. I take that goal literally," McNeel said this week as he busily prepares for the first day of classes in the school district in early August.
"We are doing great, but we could do better. I really believe that. I think once you stop wishing and dreaming about where you want to be, then you need to get out. That’s when it’s time to quit. I still want this to be a better school district."
There’s little doubt that McNeel’s tenure as Superintendent of Corbin Schools has been an unmitigated success.
The District continually ranks among the best in Kentucky on state student assessment tests. Individual schools within the district rate highly as well.
It’s financially solvent with a regular budget contingency that exceeds state guidelines.
Schools within the district have been showered with awards and recognitions for innovation and excellence. Several of the district’s teachers have received state and national honors as well for their instructional acumen.
McNeel is quick to eschew credit for the district’s accomplishments, instead pointing to the numerous individuals that have served on the Corbin Board of Education over the years, as well as community support for the school system, as the real backbone for the success during his tenure.
But there’s little doubt that McNeel, a native of West Virginia, has been instrumental in guiding that success.
His road into education was as unlikely as the one that led him to Corbin. He graduated from a tiny high school in Greenbriar County. His graduating class had only 11 students.
The son of a dairy farmer and road worker, McNeel said his parents never really pushed education. Yet he, his brother and three sisters all gravitated to college and later into careers in education.
"I can’t really explain that. My parents never said, ‘you’ve got to go to college,’ or anything like that. It just happened," McNeel recalls. "They never told us what to do, but we all became teachers."
McNeel studied at Marshall University and received a degree in education with a science emphasis. He first entered the education field in the Cabel County School System – a large school district that includes Huntington. He was a junior high science instructor.
Compared to Corbin, Cabel County’s school system was enormous. It had over 20,000 students, four high schools, 12 middle schools and 29 elementary schools. He was one of 80 science teachers in the district.
He rose through the ranks. Become an assistant principal at the school where he taught. Then Supervisor of Science for the district, Director of Research and Planning for a couple of years and then an Assistant Superintendent over personnel and technology.
"That was back in the day when they didn’t post job openings like they do today," McNeel noted with a laugh. "You didn’t apply. They called and said, ‘hey, we want to see you.’ That’s the way it operated."
It was during his time as an assistant superintendent that a colleague brought him some information regarding the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. While it was a hotly divisive issue in Kentucky at the time, McNeel said it was a breath of fresh air to an educator from outside the state who saw the opportunities it offered. When the opening at Corbin presented itself, he applied.
Former Corbin Board of Education Chairwoman Debbie Cook, who served on the search committee for a new Superintendent, said there were over 50 applicants seeking the job. She was a parent representative on the committee and had served as Parent-Teacher Organization Chair at South Elementary School. The field of 50, she said, was quickly narrowed down.
"There were some local, and some from far, far away," Cook said. "I think we got it down to about five pretty quickly. Our job was to give the Board a recommendation on whom to hire and they could take it or not. It was up to them."
Ironically, McNeel was not the search committee’s first choice. The Board of Education went it’s own way.
In hindsight, Cook said the board’s decision turned out to be inscrutable.
"I think their wisdom ended up being more than the search committees," Cook said. "I do think Mr. McNeel has done an excellent job. You’re not going to find many people who think otherwise."
Dr. Carmel Wallace, who served for 16 years on the Corbin Board of Education before accepting a position as Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, said McNeel made all the right moves when he came to Corbin, winning people over immediately with his community involvement and ability to consider the opinion of others.
"I never knew who that first candidate was. My only surprise when I think about that is, there was really somebody better than him?" Wallace said. "He is a true professional. I enjoyed working with him. I knew he always had what was best for the child and what was best for the Corbin school district at heart."
Cook, who served 17 years on the Board of Education, praised McNeel for forward thinking and uncanny knowledge of Kentucky’s education system, even when he was new on the job.
"I supported the Kentucky Education Reform Act 100 percent … and he definitely bought into it," Cook said. "That law made broad, sweeping changes to education in Kentucky and Mr. McNeel always seemed to have an impressive knowledge of what needed to be done to bring us into compliance with those standards and exceed them. I was always impressed with how much he knew. He was really what we needed at the time."
McNeel took over in the height of KERA fever, 1992. In the midst of changes to Kentucky’s educational backbone, he was also busy working to improve the infrastructure of Corbin’s aging school system. He oversaw massive renovations at the district’s middle school and elementary schools, the construction of a new primary school, complete overhaul of the high school, and the construction and improvement of numerous athletic facilities. Cook pointed out that McNeel was aggressive and relentless when it came to property acquisition for the district and starting new programs. Corbin Schools operates a Preschool Center and alternative school in sites formerly owned by government or quasi government entities.
"He’s taken advantage of every financial support out there that has allowed us to bring this district up to the standards people wanted us to meet," Cook said. "He’s been bold and got things done. He never backed off from a challenge."
Both Wallace and Cook said McNeel has had a generally good working relationship with the Board of Education over the years, as well as with fellow administrators, faculty and staff, because of his willingness to communicate clearly and share information, but also compromise and listen.
"I just try to be honest with people. I think developing integrity is showing people that what you say has meaning. Trust is not something you demand from anyone, it’s earned over time," McNeel said.
McNeel said he hasn’t actively thought about retirement, but admitted it is unlikely he will see the one big accomplishment come to fruition he’d like to get done – construction of a new middle school.
"We just don’t have the funds," he admitted. "That would be a real joy to me, but really, no matter what, I want to leave this school district financially sound and on the verge of being even better than it is now. That’s my goal."