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Roanoke County school official Carol Whitaker's job enabled her to help many employees.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Carol Whitaker, Roanoke County schools’ assistant superintendent for personnel, attends a class at Mount Pleasant Elementary School. She retired this week after working for 30 years in public education. Whitaker said she looks forward to spending more time with family.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Carol Whitaker (left) speaks with Ellen Walton, principal at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, during a visit to the school Tuesday. Whitaker is known as a problem solver.
Saturday, August 31, 2013
It’s easy for Carol Whitaker to name the best parts of her job.
Offering someone a job.
“You make someone’s day doing that,” she said.
School visits are another, especially the first day of classes.
“Where else can you work where you literally start over every year?” she mused. “It’s just a real blessing to wipe the slate clean.”
This year, though, while Roanoke County teachers and students are beginning a new year, Whitaker, the system’s assistant superintendent of personnel, will have a different fresh start of her own.
Whitaker, 62, is retiring from western Virginia’s largest school division and intends to spend more time with her family.
This week was her last with the division where she has worked for 17 years, including the last four heading the human resources department.
Her work touches every employee from teachers and administrative assistants to the superintendent and custodions. Her department hires and fires, along with handling sick leave, substitutes, retirements, health insurance and payroll.
While she’s helped employees navigate through life’s hiccups and routines, she’s also guided the division through rocky times that hit staffing hard and complicated changes to the benefits her department administers.
When Whitaker came into her role in summer 2009 it was shortly after the economic meltdown started taking its toll on local governments. She had previously been the system’s director of personnel and staff development.
As in any school system, the largest chunk of money is spent on staff, making it an obvious choice to begin cuts. Not even a year into her new position, Whitaker recalled having to implement the system’s “reduction in force” policy.
“It was a very challenging time,” she said.
One of the considerations is seniority, so officials were looking at cutting inexperienced educators. She recalled at one point her office had an easel with a poster-sized pad of paper; on it were 70 names.
“That made up the amount we were lacking,” she said. “You look at those names and you know those people.”
In the end it never came to layoffs. Instead, a retirement incentive package was offered and the system was able to eliminate positions to make ends meet, which meant moving people around.
“You had to make some changes in your overall thinking,” Whitaker said. “It was a difficult way of thinking about filling positions.”
In the years that have followed there have been more challenges with changes and updates to the Virginia Retirement System and the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
During a recent school board meeting, Whitaker was attempting to guide school board members through their next difficult decision : choosing to join the state’s new system for long- and short-term disability or to provide a comparable plan from a private company. The decision is part of a change to the state’s retirement system.
The decision has an approaching deadline and long-term consequences. School board members fired questions and jumped ahead in Whitaker’s presentation, but she didn’t miss a beat. Those who work with her said that’s not unusual.
“She’s cool, calm and collected,” Superintendent Lorraine Lange said.
She said people go to Whitaker for help solving problems, whatever they are.
“A lot of people have personal problems,” Lange said, for instance needing leave because of a death in the family or to aid elderly parents. “Carol is the one they go to.”
She’s also the one the school system has relied on for solving its own serious issues.
“She came in at a crisis time,” Lange said. “And was able to turn us around.”
Lange said Whitaker configured staff after positions were eliminated. She said when Whitaker was moving people she considered where staffers lived so if she had to move an educator who had been at a school for a long time she could at least place them close to home — something she wasn’t obligated to do.
County school board Chairman Jerry Canada said Whitaker’s skill in staffing saved the system millions of dollars.
“She has kind of moved people around so we had the correct staffing at each school without laying anyone off,” Canada said. “That’s how we’ve been able to get through the downturn in the economy up until this point.”
Canada described Whitaker’s departure as a major transition, comparable to if the system had a new superintendent.
Rebecca Eastwood, formerly the school division’s director of elementary instruction and technology, will fill Whitaker’s role. The two have worked together in recent months to make the transition, but their ties go back further.
While they have been colleagues at the central office for years, Eastwood first met Whitaker decades earlier. Whitaker interviewed her while doing a case study on inclusion for special education students.
“When I went in to be interviewed, she was open and very kind, of course no judgment,” Eastwood said. “She just had a way of putting you at ease. ‘Here’s what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.’ ”
Eastwood said Whitaker has always had the supportiveness and compassion that’s displayed in her job.
“It might not be the prettiest thing, but she’s there and will help you work through it,” Eastwood said. “Whether it’s an issue you’re are dealing with in your work life, professional life or your family life.”
Eastwood said Whitaker set an example she intends to follow as she leads the department in a time of change with no shortage of challenges.
Strangely, Whitaker said those challenges might be what she misses the most, outside of the people she’s worked with for almost two decades.
“I’m probably crazy for saying this — the staffing, which is extremely complicated,” Whitaker said. “It’s this huge puzzle you’re trying to solve.”
After 30 years in public education, Whitaker is trading those puzzles for more time with her family.
She said now was the right time to retire, joining her husband who did so five years ago. They plan to travel and spend more time with their five grandchildren, beginning this weekend when they visit.
“Family is everything,” Whitaker said, explaining that’s something she often tells people who come to her office. “Family always comes first.”
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