Michael Raisor in his JCPS office. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Editor’s Note: The search for a Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent continues and the identity of most of the nine candidates is unknown. However, two local school officials have applied. Insider Louisville is profiling them this weekend. Here is a profile of Michael Raisor. Look for the profile of Marty Pollio on Sunday.

JCPS Chief Operations Officer Michael Raisor told Insider that his education, experience in schools and understanding of business, make him uniquely qualified to lead the district at a challenging time.

Born in Landstuhl, Germany, Raisor grew up in Southern Indiana. His mother was a teacher. His father served in the U.S. Army, including, for a time, at Fort Knox. 

After graduating from North Harrison High School in Ramsey, Ind., Raisor attended Indiana State University, intending to study business administration. He switched to pre-law in his sophomore year but said he enjoyed his history and political science classes more than the idea of becoming a lawyer. In his junior year, he switched to education.

“I student-taught, and I loved it,” he said.

After graduation, Raisor taught social studies at Lanesville Community Schools, before he and his wife, Renita, who is a high school counselor, moved to her hometown, Evansville, where Raisor took a job as middle school social studies teacher.

In his 11th year at the school, serving as acting assistant principal, he was chosen as part of a turnaround team for the underperforming Harwood Middle School. He served as assistant principal there for two years, and three as principal.

Raisor said that during those five years, his team completely changed the school culture, the school’s image in the community and produced five consecutive years of higher test scores.

In the first year, Raisor said he noticed a lack of direction, and addressing that became his focus.

“Any organization has to be able to define what it’s about,” he said.

His team went about making sure that everyone understood that what happens in the classrooms matters most. Second, he said, school leaders set clear expectations, for classrooms, staff and students. That included expectations for appropriate behavior and interaction and providing staff training to help adults in the building increase their cultural competency, to make sure that they weren’t making comments that Raisor’s team considered innocent — but insensitive.

Raisor said the school focused on defining its mission, laying out what that would look like in practice and figuring out how it could measure success.

In his last year at Harwood, he was put in charge of the district’s strategic plan, which involved the relocation of about 20 schools and offices in a district that included 40 schools and 25,000 students. The district built community schools in the poorest neighborhood, focused on early childhood education and reallocated resources to produce the biggest impact on students’ lives.

Studying effective leaders

Raisor said that his doctoral study focused on how highly effective superintendents excelled during difficult times. At the time, Indiana shifted schools’ operational funding from local property taxes to the state sales tax and cut school funding. Raisor said that every school corporation had to deal with the same problem at the same time, giving him a great opportunity to identify which school leaders dealt with the challenge most effectively.

Raisor said he spent time with the state’s five most effective superintendents, asked them questions and identified their philosophies. As part of his research, he studied effective leaders in history, including John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Winston Churchill during WWII. Many of those lessons, Raisor said, are translatable to today’s schools.

Raisor said that his comprehensive background allows him to see things from many perspectives.

“So few people with the background and experience that I have exist that I’m not sure it’s readily understandable what I can bring to the table that others cannot,” he said.

Parts of JCPS ‘like hamster wheel’

Raisor said that all Jefferson County Public Schools’ problems that had come to light recently, including a state management audit and a federal report blasting the district’s early childhood education program, point to parts of the system not working together optimally.

“It is a lack of leadership and systems and structures,” he said.

At the same time, he said, the same problems that beset large organizations affect small organizations.

“They’re just more apparent in a larger organization,” he said.

“However,” he said, “There can be no tolerance for noncompliance or not doing what’s best for children, let alone mistreating them.”

In his six years with JCPS, Raisor said he had gained a greater understanding of how the component parts of a district — from the curriculum plan to transportation — could work together — or derail the entire mission.

In a district with 100,000 kids, the major systems have to work together to be able to achieve the overall mission.

“I don’t believe that right now JCPS is functioning at an optimal level,” he said. “It is a lack of leadership and systems and structures.”

While many committed people are working very hard to make kids’ lives better, some parts of the district are seeing lots of movement — but little progress — “because we don’t have systemic coherence around the mission.”

“I feel like that some systems are set up like a hamster wheel,” Raisor said.

Improvement plan

Raisor said that for the district to improve, it must:

  • Provide equity for all children
  • Proactively prepare for charter schools
  • Align the district’s resources to those things that have the biggest impact for children.

District leaders have to make sure that all of the district’s systems are working together, that everyone knows the mission, that everyone knows what it looks like when they’re fulfilling the mission and how to measure success, he said.

JCPS has to engage its students and excite them about learning while imparting meaningful, relevant lessons that prepare them for the future, Raisor said.

In his office, at 3001 Crittenden Drive, Raisor keeps photos of family and, on a bookshelf of JFK and Churchill. Post-it notes on the wall remind him to “improvise, adapt, overcome,” list steps to “expect and deliver world class” and ask questions including “What is the end goal?” and “Is it really critical?” On his desk, Raisor keeps a worn copy of one of his favorite books, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” His grandfather, Floyd Raisor, got the book in a management class he took after WWII.

Raisor also displays on his desk a copy of “Team of Teams,” by retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Raisor said it’s the most impactful book he’s read in the last decade, as it deals with the speed and complexity of life in the 21st century.

“It talks about how there has to be more trust and … clarity of mission than ever before because everyone in an organization has to be a leader,” he said.

In his spare time, Raisor spends lots of time watching his son play basketball and baseball, he said. The two also go fishing. Raisor said he and his wife every weekend also try to do something outside, including walking, running or hiking.

He said he landscaped his way through college and likes spending time in the yard.

“I’m one of those people who likes mowing the lawn,” he said with a chuckle.