Dressed in black and a multi-color wool jacket, Karen Duke smiled, cringed and at times almost lost control of her emotions.
Last week during an interview, the school board president of Decatur City Schools acknowledged the school system is at a crossroads and that she will play a significant role in shaping its future.
The Mississippi native and grandmother of two started her sixth year as board president last month and is one of the most influential educational leaders in Decatur. Yet she laughed when asked how powerful she is.
In the coming months, the board will decide whether to fix existing structures or construct a combined high school for Austin and Decatur. There will be discussion about building an elementary school in southeast Decatur.
Although the board is awaiting a facilities study that will, in part, identify where student growth is headed, Duke supports a Burningtree-area school. She said the school is an opportunity to promote economic development in the area because it would be near Interstate 65.
“We need somebody to tell us if we need a school at Burningtree or if we are just wanting one,” she said about the study Georgia-based RKR Planning Services is completing.
Duke said she wants to hear from the community before she forms an opinion on whether Decatur should unite to build one high school. She will get the chance during a series of public meetings the board will hold at Turner-Surles Community Resource Center and at Decatur’s two high schools.
“People have been coming to me in all directions since The Daily printed a story about one high school,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’ll have to make a decision that is best for the kids.”
This is where Duke’s handprint may be heaviest on the board.
She communicates almost daily with Superintendent Ed Nichols, leading some to question whether she is running the school system. Duke paused when asked about her influence on the superintendent.
“No,” she said about controlling Nichols. “That is not my style. I work with him and we both share opinions, but I also communicate with the other board members.”
Nichols said Duke and all the board members are “leader-type people” with strong opinions. He said he appreciates their viewpoints but debunked any talk that he is controlled.
“She has ideas, but is very open to other ideas,” Nichols said. “At the end of the day, I am the superintendent.”
Board member Michele Gray-King has opposed Duke on some big issues, among them hiring Nichols and the argument for unitary status. But she calls Duke a “good leader” who is informed about education statewide and how those issues might affect Decatur.
“Even though we have disagreed, I’ve never felt uncomfortable expressing my feelings or discussing anything with her,” Gray-King said.
Gray-King said she learned how passionate Duke can be when Duke helped her with the Lakeside School memorabilia project.
Lakeside was the segregated school that is now Leon Sheffield Magnet.
Gray-King wanted to collect and display pictures and records of the school’s history. “She was with me 100 percent,” she said.
Duke hasn’t always been as enthused about education as she is now, but she always has been passionate and a self-described tomboy who “had to fight my way” up.
Duke was born the only daughter of James and Jane Foster. Her father was a doctor and her mother, who died when Duke was 5, a dietician. Two more boys joined the family when her father remarried.
Bobby Lee was the oldest sibling. The retired engineer said Duke never let being the only girl stop her from “doing what the boys were doing.”
“She was always very passionate about family first, but when she had a goal or an idea, she was always driven to accomplish it,” Lee said.
Duke and her husband David met on a blind date while he was working in Biloxi, Miss. The couple married 44 years ago and have lived in Decatur 38 years.
She was inspired to earn a degree in education after teaching a class as a volunteer with Parents and Children Together. In 1983, she earned a degree in elementary education from Athens State University.
Duke worked for 12 years as a teacher in the Morgan County system until she became assistant principal at Decatur High School in 1995.
She said one of the school system’s biggest issues is poverty.
Her first significant experience with poverty in schools came in 1983 when she was a teacher at Eva Elementary. She said two boys told her they were hungry because it was raining and their mother couldn’t build a fire outside to toast them bread like she did most mornings.
“They had no power in their home, and I was heartbroken,” Duke said.
After her father got sick, Duke retired in 1998 “because it would be easier to go to Mississippi to see him.”
“When Dad was sick, Karen didn’t let a seven-hour drive stop her from coming to do her part,” Lee said.
Duke didn’t lose her passion for education when she retired and said she never stopped thinking about those little boys at Eva. At the encouragement of former Decatur City Superintendent Larry Walters, Duke ran and won a seat on the school board in 2000.
It was a different era for education in the River City. The economy was good, the school system’s poverty rate was below 40 percent and No Child Left Behind wasn’t an issue.
Now, the system’s poverty rate is 62 percent and Decatur is trying to keep up with school systems such as Hartselle and Madison, where modern high schools have gone up or are being built.
Priceville and Athens are planning to build new high schools.
The federal courts have granted Decatur partial unitary status, meaning the local school board does not have to get permission from the U.S. Department of Justice to build new schools.
“We’re at the crossroads, but I feel like the perfect storm has happened for us,” Dukes said. “We have a new superintendent, the desegregation order is almost behind us and all the board members are starting at least a second term.”
Although most of the hoopla is about a new high school, Duke said, the system’s toughest challenge is providing what Decatur’s more than 8,500 students need.
Decatur, for example, has students like those she met at Eva, Duke said.
“It’s not the kids’ fault that they don’t have power or food at home,” Duke said. “We have so many kids that don’t have family support, but we are challenged to reach them.”
Position: Represented District 3 since 2000 and has been the Decatur City Schools board president for six years. She previously worked for 12 years as a teacher in the Morgan County school system and three as assistant principal at Decatur High.
Family: Married to David Duke for 44 years. The couple have two grandsons and two daughters, Audrey, a 1990 Decatur High graduate and French teacher for Mountain Brook City Schools, and Ashley, a 1993 DHS graduate and OB-GYN at Shelby Baptist Hospital.
Education: B.S. in elementary education from Athens State University in 1983; master’s from UAB in 1994; certification in administration from UAB in 1995.
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