By Johnny Jackson
Henry County Board of Education Chairman Ray Hudalla said his involvement with public service began with tutoring students at Stockbridge High School.
"I just wanted to be more involved in the educational process of my children," said Hudalla, 49. "I was spending a lot of time doing a lot of parent volunteer work. And that's when I realized that our school system could probably do a little better than we probably were."
That was more than a decade ago, when Hudalla had two sons actively involved in Stockbridge High's Navy JROTC Program. He said he had taken an early retirement in 1993, as an auto technician with General Motors in Jacksonville, Fla., before he moved his family to Stockbridge in 1995, and began involving himself in the community.
"At the time, Henry County had a good reputation," said Hudalla. "But, even back then, there were financial issues. We were building a lot then to accommodate growth."
Hudalla will leave office, as Board of Education chair, in December.
The Rex, Ga., resident has been school board chairman for the past eight years. He has been a member of the board for the past 12 years. He ends his tenure Dec. 31, completing three terms in District V. He is not seeking re-election.
"Everybody who is on the board currently runs for pretty much the same reason -- to help improve the school system for their children, and of course, other children as well," Hudalla said. "I guess my biggest interests were to try and push the standards a little bit higher.
"It's always been to try and have students achieve higher standards and reach higher goals," he continued. "That's always been my point, and I think we've made some really good decisions to move in that direction."
Pam Nutt, who has served 14 years on the board, concurs with Hudalla's sentiment, and attributes much of the success of the Henry County School System to his guidance.
"His leadership is going to be greatly missed," Nutt said. "Ray spent a lot of time working for the Henry County School System at the state level, and county level. His knowledge of governmental issues will be really hard to replace. Whoever takes his place will have big shoes to fill."
Hudalla, however, credited his colleagues with providing him with insight on his leadership role.
"It was veterans like Dennis White and Mary Ann Mitcham [former school board members] who were instrumental in helping me learn my role and duties as a board member," Hudalla said. "I have loved my time in Henry County. The thing I will miss the most are the people that I have met during my time here."
Henry County Schools Superintendent Michael Surma praised Hudalla's persistence as an advocate in education.
"It has been my privilege to serve as Superintendent of the Henry County Schools with Mr. Ray Hudalla serving as Chairperson for the Henry County Board of Education," said Surma. "He has worked diligently and conscientiously to serve the students, faculty, staff and all members of the Henry County community. He has provided effective and fiscally sound leadership to the Henry County Schools, in the face of unprecedented growth and challenging economic times."
Surma noted the school system's growth has more than doubled during Hudalla's tenure, from 20,100 students in 1998, to 40,800 students in 2010. He said Hudalla oversaw the construction of 26 additional schools.
"In addition, over the past eight years, Mr. Hudalla and the other members of the Board, effectively managed state austerity reductions in school funding while maintaining a focus on student achievement and success," Surma said. "Mr. Hudalla has the ability to see the 'big picture' and to fairly and objectively evaluate the important issues that face all members of our educational community."
Hudalla said he believes, despite the school system's perpetual economic challenges, public education is improving in Henry County.
"Things, right now, are looking good," said Hudalla. "We've made a lot of changes with procedural issues over the last couple of years to really focus on what our job is in the school system. We've worked very well with the state on standards-based issues, and the newer curriculum which is more in line with national standards, which in turn should return great results."
Hudalla pointed to the school system's 83 percent graduation rate, and compared it to a graduation rate around 65 percent in the late 1990s, when he took office.
"We can provide the best educational atmosphere possible, but if a student comes to school not wanting to be involved in it, or don't have an interest in it, it doesn't matter. But for the most part,... I feel strongly that things are better now than they were when I came in."
The retiring school board chairman said he plans to move to Lady Lake, Fla., to be with his wife of 28 years, Linda. His wife relocated to the small central Florida town in 2007, for her job with PepsiCo, Inc.
He also anticipates spending more time with his sons Daniel, 28, and Kyle, 24, both graduates of Stockbridge High School and the University of Georgia. Both are now officers in the United States Army. Daniel is stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., and Kyle is at Fort Knox, Ky.
Hudalla, a fan of motorcycles, said he would like to build one in his newly acquired free time.
"I've got my eyes open for something," he said. "We'll see what happens."