Incoming, outgoing Tallmadge superintendents to collaborate during transition
When Jeff Ferguson walked into Tallmadge High School for the first time as an English teacher, he was handed a box of chalk and told not to lose it because he would not be issued another until Christmas.
Retiring as the district's superintendent more than 30 years later, he'll be walking away from state-of-the-art buildings whose design, versatility and connectivity rival those on any college campus.
And when he leaves, he'll be handing his crowning achievements off to the man who ensured that $52 million of the community's money would be transformed into buildings that facilitate 21st century learning.
"The focus over the last few years has been the new construction, the new buildings, the new athletic complex," said Steve Wood, current chief operations officer and soon-to-be superintendent. "The focus moving forward is going to be quite a bit different. It's really going to be what we're doing inside of these buildings and how we make the student experience even better in Tallmadge."
In December, the Tallmadge Board of Education approved Wood to succeed Ferguson as the district's superintendent, effective Feb. 1, and in an unusual move, approved Ferguson to work the remainder of the contract year as a special adviser to the superintendent.
Ferguson has been superintendent for the past 15 years,making him Summit County's longest-serving school superintendent.
As a special adviser, Ferguson will remain on his current salary of $133,451 until the end of his contract year. Wood will make $125,111 annually, and his new contract runs through July 31, 2023.
Essentially, the two men will switch roles, allowing Wood to guide the district through the remainder of the pandemic and plan for the following school year, without having to simultaneously fulfill his COO duties and search for his replacement.
"Some incoming superintendents may want the old guy out as soon as possible. I think, and the board knew, that Steve's not a big ego guy," Ferguson said. "He's a team guy. I'm similar to that and the board felt that we had this opportunity to make this work."
The two men have worked together for a decade, first meeting at Wood's interview for the business manager position.
"He's what was called at the time a 'nontraditional candidate,'" Ferguson said.
Wood had never been a teacher, instead coming from corporate America. He had an engineering degree from Lehigh University and an MBA in finance from Rutgers University, and at the time, was working for Merrill Lynch in New Jersey.
"We asked him, 'Why does someone leave Merrill Lynch, clearly making a lot more money, and move to small town Tallmadge, Ohio?'" Ferguson recalled. "And for Steve, the answer was that it was all about the kids. He saw the role of business manager as a way to helping kids succeed, not just checking ceiling tiles or making buses run on time."
Wood is the son of two former high school teachers and had developed an understanding and appreciation for education administration as an elected member of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District's school board in New Jersey.
"I fell in love with it," Wood said. "I built deep relationships there and was trying to figure out how to take my engineering and business background and apply it to the school world. That's ultimately what brought me here to Tallmadge."
At the time of Wood's hire, the new high school had been open for only two years, and the district had five different school buildings with five different addresses.
Four years into Wood's tenure, he began preparing to ask the community for two bond issues to build the new athletic facilities, middle school and elementary school, both of which were approved in 2016.
"This became Steve's baby. He was literally in charge of this $52 million construction project that was just huge. The board, myself, Steve, we all knew we had to get this right for the community," Ferguson said.
The middle school opened in 2019, and the elementary school had a delayed opening in 2020 due to the pandemic, which also delayed Ferguson's retirement plans.
"I had been thinking about it, but with the pandemic, I wanted to make sure we got through it," Ferguson said. "When you invest as much time as I have, you want to make sure that everything is as good as it possibly can be when you leave."
The board ultimately asked Wood to consider becoming superintendent, which Wood said took him by surprise and required reflection.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and the more I did, the more excited I get with the opportunity to take on a new challenge personally and professionally, learn a lot of new things and work with this awesome community of people. It just is a dream job for the next step of my career," Wood said.
School Board President Rick Kellar said that the board was deliberate in the process of searching for a replacement, and thought thoroughly about the type of leadership needed and how to find the right person in the middle of a pandemic.
"We're grateful that the answer was right in front of us," Kellar said. "There are surrounding districts around wondering how they would do it. So many times, superintendents are running to the door or are being shown the door. That's not where we're at."
Ferguson noted that many of the school board members have strong business backgrounds, and that they approached the transition from a business perspective.
"I think they feel that this is how successful businesses do this kind of transition. In schools, we don't think that way," Ferguson said. "I'm hopeful that when we move past this, other boards will realize that too often someone retires on one day and walks out the next, and takes all that knowledge with them."
"It's huge to have Jeff stay here to make sure we finish the job related to COVID, so that we can take this great district and make it even better from a performance standpoint," Wood said. "Having Jeff's help with that transition enables me and the team here to make sure we staff and structure ourselves for the future."
Wood said his initial two priorities will be to navigate through the remainder of the pandemic while ensuring that students are progressing, and to improve performance. He has already reached out to several other Summit County superintendents to begin building relationships and get advice.
Joe Clark, superintendent of Nordonia Hills and a Tallmadge graduate, said he is looking forward to Wood joining the Summit County superintendents' group and that Ferguson will be greatly missed.
"He is so well-respected in the county. He's one of those guys that younger folks like me look up to and go to for questions. When someone like Jeff leaves, we're sad but happy for him and we know he can always be reached," Clark said.
Ferguson's contract with the district will end this summer, at which point he plans to ride his bike across the country.
With Ferguson's retirement on Jan. 31, and Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James' retirement in June, the new longest tenured superintendents in the county will be Walter Davis of Woodridge and Brian Poe of Copley, both of whom started with their districts in 2010.
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.