On a side table in Dr. Stephen Hefner’s office, a large coffee table book celebrating America’s great baseball stadiums stands on a small easel. It serves as a constant reminder that Dr. Hefner and his wife still have a few stops to go on their mission of visiting every major league ballpark.
That odyssey is, however, benched for the moment.
Dr. Hefner’s professional journey through the world of public education has brought him out of retirement to Batesburg-Leesville as the new Interim Superintendent for Lexington School District Three. He has been on the roster as the schools’ skipper only since July 1 and now set to welcome teachers back to work and less than two weeks from opening day for students.
“I just want to be of service and help to the community,” Dr. Hefner said. “I do think I can make a difference, even in the short term.”
Called out of retirement following the departure of Dr. Randall Gary (who left for an assignment in Spartanburg District Five), Dr. Hefner might be described in baseball parlance as a “utility player” — versatile enough to fill-in at a key position as-needed until moving on to the next assignment. In Dr. Hefner’s case, that assignment would be finally getting to enjoy retirement once and for all.
He is not even under contract to Lexington District Three but is working instead under an agreement that gives either party a 30-day “out” when a permanent superintendent is found — or, as Dr. Hefner puts it, “if for some reason I think I’ve done all I can do or have something else I need to do.”
“Been working for years and years…”
A native of Missouri, Dr. Hefner’s first outing as a superintendent was in 1994 at Richland District Two, where he had taught English for three decades before taking the top slot in that northeast Columbia system for 16 years.
During his tenure, that slice of Richland County blossomed and school enrollment doubled to around 26,000 students. The number of schools under his charge nearly tripled from 13 schools to 36, most of them elementary and middle schools.
So, Dr. Hefner is quite familiar with the challenges of managing school growth. He also is well acquainted with the “interim” label. He was called back into action after retiring from Richland Two to lead Richland District Five as Interim Superintendent – only to remain there for eight years.
His second crack at retirement lasted about a year, until the call came from Batesburg-Leesville.
“I don’t envision myself staying long-term. I’ve been working for years and years and years,” said Dr. Hefner, who served in the U.S. Army before segueing into education.
“When I knew this was coming available, and I knew the Board wanted an adequate amount of time to do a really thorough search and end up with the person that they think is the right fit for the long term, I told them I’d be happy to fill in for whatever length of time they wanted, up to a year.”
“You’re either getting better, or…”
While the School Board prepares its search for the next long-term leader, the Interim Superintendent is taking his assignment no less seriously than if he was planting roots for decades of service.
“I want to do more than just maintain the momentum. Nothing is so good that it can’t be improved,” Dr. Hefner said. “I’m still learning a lot, but hopefully I’ll be able to make some observations and some assessments and make some improvements. As the great Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler said, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. There’s no staying the same.”
That emphasis on improvement and achievement certainly played a role in Dr. Hefner acquiring the other memento that hangs in a simple frame on the wall just above his prized baseball book. In 2009, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state of South Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
Mission One: Academic Achievement / Mission Two: Facilities
Dr. Hefner is prepared to tackle at least three main missions during his time in Batesburg-Leesville schools. The first priority, of course, is academic achievement.
“We have a lot to boast about here, but specifically I want us to pay a lot of attention to English language arts. That’s an area where we can show some improvement,” he said. “I believe in the written word; I like for it to be right. I like telling stories, and I like to be told stories.”
Secondly, Dr. Hefner said he wants to “help the Board as they formulate a plan for improving our facilities. It’s clearly a huge need.”
Last November, more than 61 percent of voters in Lexington District Three rejected a $90 million bond referendum. The bond measure would have funded much-needed renovations and expansion at the Batesburg-Leesville Primary School.
It also would have built a new Batesburg-Leesville High School to replace the current 43-year-old school and the use of modular classrooms — which federal education officials have said present both security and public health risks to students and teachers.
Many economic development experts – including the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit that studies economic issues for low- to middle-income populations — have concluded that “public education, including the built infrastructure to support it, is key to the economic prosperity of our communities and nation.”
“In order for the school system to be viable, we have to be in a position to compete with our neighbors, and our neighbors are up on their game significantly,” Dr. Hefner said. “To me, it’s not just about driving economic growth. It’s about maintaining the families we have here. There’s real interest in people having their grandkids and their great-grandkids grow up in this community. In order to keep our families here, we need better schools.”
Mission Three: Celebrating 100 years
Finally, the third mission that Dr. Hefner is excited to spearhead will be a celebration of the 100th graduating class at the high school.
“As I told the Chamber of Commerce when I spoke to them, I don’t know that I will make it to the sesquicentennial. So, we’ve got to put a lot of stock in this centennial celebration,” he quipped.
Dr. Stephen Hefner knows that he will be part of the education system in Batesburg-Leesville for only a brief season. Still, he wants to ensure that when he and his wife – who recently won a battle against breast cancer, now in remission – finally head out again on their baseball odyssey, he will have knocked it out of the park for Lexington District Three, its teachers and its families.
“The sense of community that’s here is very rare in today’s world,” he said.
“I think in the big picture of life, we’re all ‘interim.’ Some of us have it in our title, and some of us don’t. The bottom line is, I’m here to serve as Superintendent. I’m not passing off the issues that come along to some unknown person; I will deal with them as they arise. I certainly want to do as I’ve always done — which is give it my full effort.”
Story by Tony Baughman / Posted August 11, 2019