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Thomas Lay Burroughs Award

Strategic planning, executive search, goals highlight accomplishments

John Smith, president of the Meridian School District 223 Board of Education, was named the winner of the 2015 Thomas Lay Burroughs Award.

The Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) John Sanders presented the award to Smith on Nov. 22 at the third general session of the IASB/IASA/IASBO Joint Annual Conference.

Introducing the Burroughs Award winner, Sanders stated, “Mr. Smith led the board through a strategic planning process prior to starting a superintendent search in order to set the district’s goals after the district had experienced four superintendents in three years.” Although others rebuffed this approach at first, Sanders said that Smith believed the district needed to know what kind of person they wanted and in what direction they wanted to go. This has proven successful, providing stability and direction for the district.

Smith was nominated for the Burroughs Award, which honors the state’s top school board president, by Superintendent P.J. Caposey. In the nomination letter, Caposey cited Smith for setting high goals, and noted the improved success the district has enjoyed in recent years.

“His goal is not only to leave the district in a better place than he found it, but also to leave it in a situation where incredible success is the standard and is sustainable,” Caposey wrote.

Smith also played a central role in addressing a severe financial crisis that plagued Meridian. When he became board president, the district faced a $1.4 million deficit. He subsequently helped lead the district through massive cuts, reducing 10 percent of its staff, “including some friends and neighbors,” he noted, eliminating junior high school athletics, and dramatically changing the district’s busing system to help save nearly $1 million. Smith also led the board to replace a $2 million bond issue with a $1.25 million tax referendum that was adopted, thanks in part to his efforts to educate the community.

Passage of the referendum allowed the school board to reinstate junior high sports and adopt a surplus budget this fall.

Smith has also helped the district work toward embracing the process to pursue the prestigious Baldrige Award for Performance Excellence. The rigorous application process for that award helps organizations achieve quality, sustainable systems built to last. Superintendent Caposey wrote that this process reflects Smith’s leadership and philosophy.

“I am truly humbled and honored to receive this prestigious award,” Smith told the Sunday’s assembly of school board members, superintendents, business officials, school attorneys, and other leaders.

He said his district superintendent has stated that the role and function of a school board involves three items: to set the district’s mission, create strategic goals, and put policies in place.

“On the surface, this all sounds very sterile. So I would offer this: While it’s extremely important that a school board concentrate their efforts on those functions, they then have to have the strength and trust to allow the superintendent to implement the mission, plans, and policies.

“But first the board must look to be sure they have created those things with a heart of compassion and a mind set on learning. Ladies and gentlemen, a school board is and should be made up of more than just strategic planners. It must be made up of hard-working, dedicated community members who want to help students,” Smith said.

He then thanked his fellow board members for making the receipt of the Burroughs award possible, “and for all that you do for the district and for supporting its mission.” He also thanked all his family for allowing him “to take the extra time” that also made so many accomplishments possible.

Smith has served the District 223 board for five years, including three as board president.

The unit district is located in the Northwest division and has a current enrollment of 1,800 students.

The Burroughs Award, created in 1991, is given annually for extraordinary educational leadership at the local level. Specifically, the award honors leadership:

  • on behalf of improved student learning and educational excellence;
  • in resolving a crisis or major difficulty; and
  • on behalf of equal education opportunities.  

It is named in memory of the late chairman of ISBE who also served as president of the Collinsville CUSD 10 board of education.


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