Newly elected Fort Worth schools president no rookie

Posted Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Judy Gutches Needham

Age: 71

Occupation: Elected in 1996 to Fort Worth school board. Represents District 5, which includes Arlington Heights High School.

Education: Alice Carlson Elementary School, McLean Middle School and Paschal High School, class of 1959; studied at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, graduated University of Texas at Austin, Bachelor of Arts degree in math and Spanish, 1963.

Work history: Part-time fund-raising consultant for nonprofit organizations. Owner of Under the Tower restaurant, 1989 to 1995. Former paralegal. Serves on numerous civic boards.

Family: Three adult children, five grandchildren

Hobbies: Travel, reading, math puzzles, two dogs, two cats and an Amazon parrot named Sheba.

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FORT WORTH -- Years ago, Judy Needham spent a week as a substitute teacher in a Fort Worth school and ended up learning an important lesson.

She was not cut out for the classroom.

So it was ironic when Needham, who has served five terms as a trustee in Texas' third-largest school district, took the gavel as school board president Tuesday.

Needham launched her first meeting as president with a statement in English and then stilted Spanish.

"My hope is that the board will join me in pledging that our operations will continue to be transparent, harmonious and respectful, even when we disagree. I trust that the focus of our decisions will always be what's best for children. We must also commit to being policy makers, not micromanagers, leaving the day-to-day operations for our very capable staff," she said.

It was important, she said, to reach out to families with limited English in a district that is 60 percent Hispanic.

The nine-member board faces significant challenges, including dwindling funding from the state, increased accountability for testing requirements and the need to keep pace with rapidly changing technology.

At the same time, Needham said trustees are committed to decreasing the long-standing rancor that has characterized board relations.

In recent years, board dynamics became increasingly contentious as personalities clashed. Trustees split into two factions, voting 5 to 4 on key issues. Snide comments and bickering were common at meetings, and some trustees sent heated, accusatory e-mails to each other and staff members.

Much of the discord extended over trustee support of former Superintendent Melody Johnson, which spilled into other issues, including gas drilling leases, a contract for collecting delinquent taxes, budget cuts and the lingering fallout from an Arlington Heights High School investigation that found various instances of wrongdoing.

Johnson abruptly resigned in May 2011 amid what former board president Ray Dickerson said at the time was a "hostile work environment" created by trustees' relentless criticism.

'I made a mistake'

Needham's tenure on the board hasn't been without controversy. She clashed with trustee Ann Sutherland in 2010 after Sutherland filed a protest with the Texas Railroad Commission to stop Chesapeake Energy from drilling for natural gas near a school.

In an email, Needham said Sutherland overstepped her role and called her "an anarchist and a crazy old fool of a woman."

"Judy Needham and I have been on opposite sides of several significant issues. I anticipate that we will be able to work together while she is president," Sutherland said recently.

Needham said that she regrets that the exchange got personal, and that she has worked to rebuild the relationship.

"I made a mistake and I've apologized to her," Needham said. "It set me off and I should not have sent that email. I've learned the hard way. I'm known as being fairly outspoken and upfront and honest, but I didn't need to do that.

"As president, I need to set the bar, be the leader and be fair to everyone, and treat everyone with respect as I want to be treated," she said.

Community leader Michael Bell, pastor of the Greater St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church, said Needham is a pragmatic person who works behind the scenes on issues and meets directly with people to forge relationships.

In the late 1990s, for example, groups began picketing Tanglewood Elementary School because they believed minority students were being treated unfairly. Organizers said school administrators were unresponsive to their concerns.

Needham and others arranged meetings with clergy members to address concerns and forged a compromise, said Bell.

"Judy will listen and talk with you, and move in your direction by way of compromise if she feels like it is in the best interest of the kids," Bell said. "She goes in a straight line and straight to the point, and is the kind of person who is results-oriented. She will say, 'We need to get this resolved.' Judy is a straight-shooter and I respect that."

The Jan. 15 board vote to install Needham as president was unanimous. At the same meeting, trustees agreed to expand the number of officers by adding a second vice president, a post now held by Carlos Vasquez. Needham will be president of the board that runs the 80,000-student school district at least until May. After the May elections, state law requires the board to vote again on officers.

Trustees said they have made an informal agreement to rotate members through the presidency about every six months to give some long-serving members the chance to hold the top job.

Deep roots in Fort Worth

A lifelong Fort Worth resident, Needham, 71, majored in Spanish and math in college. She quips that she now uses her math degree to complete Sudoku puzzles and help her five grandchildren with homework.

An avid traveler, she's planning a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, with friends this summer to hear a concert by Stanislav Ioudenitch, the 2001 co-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Needham met Ioudenitch in 1997 when she was assigned as Ioudenitch's host while he was in Fort Worth for the competition. Although Ioudenitch spoke little English, the two could converse in Spanish.

Over the years, she has traveled to Europe to hear him perform, and attended the 2008 ceremony when he became an American citizen.

"Judy for me is like my American mom," Ioudenitch said in a phone interview from his home in Kansas. "It was a fantastic experience for me and I felt at home. She has a huge respect for what I do and a love of classical music." An alumna of R.L. Paschal High School, Needham has three children, Jeff, 40; Mike, 43, and Jill Franke, 45. All of her children attended Arlington Heights High School, which is in her current district.

In high school, she was president of the Musagetes, an invitation-only club for girls from Paschal and Arlington Heights that performed community-service projects, such as raising money for children's health care.

She developed a lifelong commitment to community service and eventually parlayed her deep Fort Worth roots into her vocation and volunteer work.

As a fund-raising consultant, she has worked for groups including Big Brothers Big Sisters and the United Way of Tarrant County.

"I've grown up here, and people are always saying, 'You sure do know a lot of people,' " she said.

After a divorce in 1980, her attorney hired her as a litigation paralegal. She worked in that capacity for many years before jumping into the role of a small-business owner.

In 1989, she bought a restaurant called Under the Tower on Camp Bowie Boulevard, currently the location of Tommy's Hamburger Grill.

"I just wanted to own a small business, and it was two blocks from my house and it was for sale," she said. "What a shock to be in the food business, though. I could do the math for all the checks and the government requirements, but the hiring was hard. And firing. I'd never done it before.

"I would hire people to take orders, and I'd be amazed that some couldn't read."

She sold the business after six years.

'Little did I know'

Needham initially ran for a position on the school board in 1996, beating good friend and fellow church member Norman Robbins for the unexpired term of Steve Palko. Robbins was elected to the board in 2004.

"A couple of friends suggested I run. I thought, well it's one more volunteer job. But little did I know," she said

One of the first things she said she noticed was the outdated technology in the district. Some computers were 20 years old.

She championed projects to lay new cables, update computers and replace overhead projectors and chalkboards with interactive white boards in classrooms, said Johnson, the former superintendent.

"Judy is very tech-savvy. She is always reading about the latest things," Johnson said. "Judy's primary interest was bringing the whole school system up to date in technology, and she was extraordinary."

Needham talks excitedly about the district's forthcoming mobile app, the use of iPads in classrooms and the future of digital textbooks.

"Technology is changing at light speed and changing the way kids learn," she said. "We've got to be customer-focused toward the child and the people that are coming to work with us.

"The old deal of drill and kill, where teachers just talk, is over."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326

Twitter: @jessamybrown

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