When Steve Carter began his duties as superintendent of the McCracken County School District last July, he could not have foreseen how his first school year with the Mustangs would end.
The last two months of school had students learning from home, and many traditional events in the final month of school were canceled due to health concerns regarding COVID-19.
But the Meade County native who said that he could recall going to the post office to get commodity cheese as a child and who lived in a barn for three months as a youth saw the coronavirus changes as another life challenge.
“Having to go to distance learning for the last nine weeks of the school year and dealing with a global pandemic was not one of the things that I ever imagined,” he said. “The first thing that I wanted to communicate was we were going to make sure that all of our students were fed and all of our employees had an opportunity to earn a paycheck.
“We served over a half-million meals during that timeframe and received nothing but compliments and appreciation within making those services happen as well as the community at large.”
Carter said that the experience was stressful, but by taking precautions, he was able to see the district through to the end of the school year.
“You want to make sure that you protect everybody involved and do not become a carrying agent to spread what I called an intangible natural disaster,” he said. “The staff and the community really came together to get through it and to continue moving forward.”
Carter came to McCracken County from the Union County School District, where he served as a deputy superintendent for 14 years. His first year as McCracken superintendent was his 25th year in education service.
“The first year is always unique because you’ve really got to sift through and learn about the things that are going really well that you want to enhance or not take away from, and identify ways of growth,” he said.
“Each community and each school has unique needs, but one common thing that I’ve stressed with building this administration is that we are a school district and not a district of schools.”
Carter said that his first year as superintendent was unique, but added that it was much more than the COVID-19 experience.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was exciting; it was exhilarating — much like life. We have some moments that are sad or heartbreaking, but on the same token, we have moments of exhilaration and excitement and enjoyment.”
Carter recalled Paducah business CSI paying off all student food service debts in early March with a check for $49,115 as one highlight of his first year.
“A lot of communities don’t have partners like that,” he said. “We are blessed to have such people in our community.”
Looking ahead, Carter said the near future is hard to foretell because no one knows to what degree school will be affected by COVID-19 in the 2020-21 school year.
“We’ll always have to deal with it,” he said. “The biggest thing is to try to continue to move the district forward and truly appreciate everything you have.”
The new Lone Oak Middle School is still on schedule to open in time for the 2021-22 school year, and the district will see several schools and the central office relocate as a result.
“We have growth, and we have other needs that we need to address,” he said. “We’re putting plans in place to address our facility needs in Reidland and Heath as well as the Lone Oak area.
“We have some very nice schools, and we also have some older schools that are very nice but just need some upgrades to keep pace with everybody around.”
Carter was also excited about the prospects that the Paducah Innovation Hub — scheduled to open in August — will bring to workforce students and those who want to gain more education and experience in fields that require further education.
District board chair Chris Taylor said that Carter has been an asset to the school district.
“It’s been an unprecedented year with the COVID-19 pandemic … but what he has pulled off has been truly remarkable,” Taylor said. “He is very professional, respectful and communicates very well. He has a strong work ethic, and his actions definitely speak louder than words.”
Taylor pointed out Carter’s motto of “McCracken Proud.”
“For someone that is not from McCracken County, he truly does live and breathe McCracken County,” he said. “The relationships that he’s built within the last year with different businesses and stakeholders has been remarkable.”