School board members discuss finding a new superintendent

Published 12:06 am Thursday, April 28, 2022

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools is starting its search for a new superintendent less than a month after it found out it would lose its former leader.

Tony Watlington resigned from the post effective April 15 and will begin leading the School District of Philadelphia in June. The Philadelphia district announced Watlington was one of three finalists for the job in March and named him as its next superintendent on April 1. Watlington started at RSS in January of 2021.

On Monday, RSS Board of Education Chair Dean Hunter announced the search for a new superintendent would be posted this week.

The job was posted on Wednesday and will stay open through May 16.

Hunter said one of his high priorities, based on recent experiences, is someone who is invested in the community.

Hunter said that does not necessarily mean someone local to Rowan County, but someone familiar with the community and worked in a system similar to RSS.

“On a personal level, it always seems in the education world, to me, there are a lot of people who are not content to stay in a position,” Hunter said, adding there is no real way to tell if someone will want to stay.

Hunter said the next step is to see who is interested via the application process.

Hunter said the district has already sent a survey out about the issue and the district is planning a community forum to gather public input in-person.

“We’ve even thrown around the idea of doing it in multiple locations, like maybe different schools and high schools so we can get different segments of our large county,” Hunter said, adding the process would probably not include candidates.

The announcement and forums held with finalists in Philly was unusual by North Carolina standards, where public input is common but announcing candidates ahead of an appointment is not.

Hunter said he liked the more-public process, but it was strange to watch his superintendent apply for another job in public.

“The problem with that is it may eliminate some candidates from doing it because they’re in a current role somewhere and to keep it confidential helps them,” Hunter said.

Board member Jean Kennedy said continuing to improve academics in the district is her top priority, but she is also concerned about student safety.

She said the district seems to be at a point where it is beginning to address the needs of students who need the most support and meeting the needs of its highest-performers.

“I want to hear what the public is going to ask at our forum,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said she is interested in someone who is familiar with renewal and in the meantime she is happy with the choice of Jason Gardner to serve as interim superintendent.

She said she believes the community does not have the strong ties it used to have with its schools and wants to see those relationships rebuilt. She recalled teaching and seeing more parent engagement in schools.

“When I first started teaching I looked forward to going to PTA as much as I did teaching all day,” Kennedy said.

Board member Brian Hightower was sworn in after Watlington was tapped as the next superintendent. He was clear about his priorities: Student and parent accountability, and athletics programs.

“I want somebody who will come in and take a common sense approach the problems we have as far as dealing with student accountability, parent accountability, maintaining a good relationship with the community and thinking outside the box when it comes to dealing with discipline in our district,” Hightower said.

Hightower, a longtime baseball coach, gave a baseball analogy for the issues he sees with student accountability.

“If my team has an ERA of 2 and I’m hitting 148, I don’t go working on my pitching, I go working on my hitters,” Hightower said.

Hightower said he wants to see improvements in athletics programs as well, specifically pointing to coach compensation and facility maintenance. The district is currently searching for a permanent athletic director.

“We still run our athletic department like it’s 1989,” Hightower said.

Hightower said ties to the community would be a valuable asset for a new superintendent, but that is not a requirement for him.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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