Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of stories selected by the staff of The Commercial as the Top 10 local news stories of 2011.

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of stories selected by the staff of The Commercial as the Top 10 local news stories of 2011.

The Pine Bluff School District Board of Directors on June 7 hired Louisiana educator Jerry O. Payne as superintendent after Frank Anthony retired after 12 years of leading the district.

Anthony announced his planned retirement at a school board meeting in February.

“After 12 and one-half years (come June 30th), I am presenting my official notice of retirement. I am very grateful for being privileged to serve as your superintendent the last 12 years,” Anthony wrote in his letter to the board.

Anthony presented the board with a summary of his accomplishments as superintendent. During his tenure, the district: was removed from both academic and fiscal distress in April/May 2000; planned and organized budget cuts of about $2 million in April 1999; closed six elementary schools over an eight-year span; purchased 35 new school buses; and oversaw $29.4 million worth of construction projects that included two new elementary schools, a new Pine Bluff High School Academy and renovations or additions to all other campuses.

Anthony’s last day was June 30. Before his departure, district employees threw him a surprise party.

“I want to thank all of you for what you do for the school district,” Anthony said at the party. “What we do is bigger than Frank Anthony because we have about 4,900 babies enrolled next year and we need to continue towards that finish line. I feel truly surprised by the unity of the community.”

Payne began his work with the school district in a consultant capacity in the weeks leading up to July 1, his first day as leader of the largest school district in Jefferson County.

Payne’s first significant task was filling all of the district’s top administrative posts with qualified personnel after they were vacated en masse along with Anthony’s departure.

“The employees of this district are tremendous resources for me,” Payne said in early June. “I have been very pleased in talking with members of the administrative staff as I have benefited from their knowledge and learned about the role they’ve carried out to build the system to this level.”

Payne said his past professional experience was crucial in making the decisions that had to be made in summer 2011.

“There is really a short transition time and I have to rely upon those past experiences,” Payne said at the time. “All of those things come to bear as you seek to lead the district. We are working in a framework of about 45 days before the beginning of the new school year in which to make some very important decisions that will guide our system going forward.”

Payne brought his message to community leaders with an address before the Pine Bluff Rotary Club in late July.

“You as business leaders and I as the superintendent need to understand that we need each other,” Payne said in the address. “I don’t want toxic schools. I want to produce pioneers in our schools, the type of people who can compete with the best anywhere in the world.”

Payne told the Rotary audience that he was taking the principles found in the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and applying them to education.

“I have asked every principal to have at least two business partners,” Payne said. “These partnerships legitimize what we are doing as a school. I partnered with Honeywell, the people who install the heating and cooling thermostats, so that their employees could come and speak to the kids about careers in that field. My goal is to secure partnerships from at least two businesses for each school in the district to allow students to see the connection between school and the rest of life.”

Payne told the Rotary audience about his philosophy of education.

“People talk about closing the gap in education,” Payne said. “It is not just about closing the gap. We in this field have an ethical and moral responsibility to educate children. We must let every child understand that they have greatness in them.”

After the start of the 2011-2012 school year, friction developed between Payne and the school board over issues pertaining to the district’s information technology infrastructure and the amount of money required to pay for equipment and consultants.

Likewise, a dispute between district teachers and Payne over whether the proper channels were followed in requiring teachers to adhere to a new dress code and to sign in and out at the beginning and end of each school day created friction within the district.