LIBERTY — From her corner office at the Casey County Board of Education, Linda Hatter can — and often does — look across the Green River and catch a glimpse of Casey County High School through the trees that line the banks.
It’s the same building that Hatter graduated from in 1974, when she was such an eager student that she would arrive 30 minutes early in the morning and make the rounds through the hallways, visiting with schoolmates and teachers before classes began.
“Sometimes I wish I had a swinging bridge so I could just walk over there whenever I wanted,” she said Friday. “I loved high school. Every time I go over there, I can’t help but think of walking through the halls and all the fond memories.”
These days, Hatter’s fond memories stretch far beyond the high school. She can look back at her 34 years with the school system — the last 10 as superintendent — and see plenty to get misty-eyed about and be proud of as she eases toward her retirement at the end of June.
“It’s a good time,” she said. “Things are going well here. I think I’m leaving the district in as good as shape as I possibly could, academically, financially and facilities wise.”
Indeed, there might not have ever been a better time for Casey County schools, which began the year with $4.3 million in reserve funds.
When results for the new K-PREP assessment tests were released in November, Casey earned “proficient” classification as a district and ranked among the top 20 systems in the state. Only Boyle County scored higher among area schools. Liberty Elementary — where Hatter attended and later taught fourth grade and served as assistant principal — was a “distinguished” school, in the top three percent in Kentucky, according to test results.
“When the poverty level (based on the number of students who receive free or reduced lunches) is factored in, we’re in the top 5 percent, which something I’m especially proud of,” Hatter said.
Hatter, 56, also shepherded the county through a painful consolidation process in which five community schools were shuttered and two new elementary schools, Jones Park and Walnut Hill, were built. Hatter said those were emotional times and that she herself hated to see the small schools around the county close, but there was no other realistic alternative.
“It’s what you needed to do, not what you wanted to do,” she recalled. “I don’t know what we would have done with our old schools and coal-burning furnaces. We had to have a janitor to sleep at Middleburg so he could feed the furnace overnight when the auger broke down.”
Amy Thompson began her teaching career at Phillips Elementary, one of the schools that was closed. Thompson said that whomever was superintendent would have had to deal with the consolidation issue, but Hatter handled the difficult situation with aplomb.
“I think a lot of it was the time and place she fell into, but she led the charge on it because she wanted to bring us into the 21st Century,” said Thompson, who is currently the curriculum coach at Walnut Hill.
While Hatter is quick to give credit for the district’s successes to staff and parents, Thompson said Hatter deserves special kudos for remembering her roots in the classroom and developing solid teachers and teaching techniques.
“I think Casey County kids can get as good an education as kids anywhere in the state,” Thompson said. “She’s been a strong instructional superintendent and it just transfers across the district. Her main focus has been instructional and I think the academic push really started with her.
“As a curriculum coach, I go to meetings across the state and every time they tell us we need to do something, we’ve already been doing it for a while. She just pushes us to keep it interesting. Casey County wouldn’t be where we are without her instruction and leadership. It’s been a good 10 years. We’re going to miss her. I just hope we can continue.”
During Friday’s interview, Hatter was reluctant to talk about anything negative in her career. She admitted, however, that being the first woman to lead the school district presented some difficult challenges early on.
“You could say there were a few folks who doubted how successful you were going to be and wondered how long you would last under the pressures of the job,” she said. “It is a hard job and I do take pride in what we’ve accomplished. I hope I set a good example for the young ladies of ‘You can do it.’
Other than the five years she spent in Lexington while attending the University of Kentucky, Hatter has lived her entire life in Casey County. Her mother, Betty Lou Weddle, was a life-long teacher whose career began in a one-room school house in the Creston community, but Hatter didn’t decide to follow that path until she began attending college.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do until I went away to college, but whatever I did I knew I was coming home,” she said. “I love this county. I’m a Casey Rebel at heart.”
Hatter said she is aware that some have “looked down their noses” at Casey County as a poor, rural place where education was not highly valued and that many might have been surprised to learn of the district’s high test scores and high ranking in the state. That perception has shifted in recent years, at least within the education community, Hatter said, and is beginning to polish the county’s apple as a whole.
“We’re changing the way people view Casey County,” she said.