Q&A with Retiring Bibb Schools Superintendent Curtis Jones

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Grant Blankenship | GPB

Bibb County Schools Superintendent Curtis Jones is set to retire June 30, 2022, ending his seven-year tenure. The 67-year-old sat down with The Macon Newsroom and Georgia Public Broadcasting for an exit interview at Vineville Academy on June 7.

Bibb County Schools Superintendent Curtis Jones has packed up his office and is set to retire at the end of the month.

When Jones was hired by the school board in 2015, he was the school district’s seventh leader in five years. The board picked Jones after two years of searching for a leader who could stabilize the district and rebuild trust in the community.

Jones had been superintendent of Griffin-Spalding County Schools for six years before taking the job in Bibb. His tenure began amid a period of low morale across the district and distrust among locals because he district was still involved in federal court trials and civil lawsuits related to former Superintendent Romain Dallemand, who was accused of bilking the school district of millions through contracts for bogus computer equipment.

In 2019, Jones was named Georgia Superintendent of the Year and the National Superintendent of the Year. Under his leadership, graduation rates for Bibb schools increased from 71.2% in 2015 to 80.67% in 2021.

Jones used the acronym VIP, which stands for Victory in Progress, to instill a culture of accountability within the district. New hires must be employed with the district for one year before receiving a VIP pin. The slogan is the title of the district’s strategic plan, which “has five goal areas: increasing student achievement, increasing student and stakeholder engagement, increasing teacher and leader effectiveness, being a reliable organization, and learning and growth,” according to the district’s website.

A new strategic plan will be developed by incoming Superintendent Dan Sims.

In his final weeks on the job, 67-year-old Jones met with The Macon Newsroom to share his thoughts on the state of the district, its present and future challenges, and trajectory amid a declining student population, a struggle to recruit and retain qualified teachers and heightened concerns about students’ mental health and safety.

Jones also addressed the school board’s decision to hire Sims from Atlanta Public Schools to replace him. Jones, at the direction of the school board that hired him, spent years mentoring numerous district leaders including his former chief of staff, Tanzy Kilcrease, whom he said he hoped would have gotten the job.

Jones, who lives in Griffin, is set to retire June 30.

Bibb School District Superintendent Curtis Jones explains items included in the 2020 ESPLOST sales tax referendum to the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce at its September meeting. (Liz Fabian | The Macon Newsroom)

Q: Why retire now?

A: “My process has always been to look down the road and see what options are available. When I got to 20 years in the Army … I knew then that that was the transition point. I could either stay in or get out and I wanted to be able to evaluate that.

The idea of coming to Bibb and being in public education, I knew the same thing. When I got in at age 42, I knew that at age 62, Social Security would be available and I could retire. That was the natural point. The next natural point was age 66 and so when I got to 66, I wanted to be able to make that decision again.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I stayed to 67 and that is because the board asked me to stay with this new Board of Education. But my intent had always been to ensure that I enjoyed what they call the ‘golden years’ with my family, my wife, and be able to do some of those things that I have neglected.

We have three grandchildren. I’ve seen some of their softball games, very few plays or things like that, but I want to be a person who they can say like, ‘I love my grandpa.’ I don’t want them to say, ‘Who is my grandpa?’ And so I’m looking forward to doing that.

I guess the last thing is, I really do believe that the VIP has been good for Bibb, but I also think fresh eyes also let you see your blind spots and I would not see the blind spots. And so the new superintendent, I think, can take them and move them to the next place. And I don’t want to be in the way. I want to see Bibb do well and not be a part of the hindrance.”

Q: What, in your view, is the state of the school system now compared to when you came here?  

A: “I think our school system is in a better place now than it was in 2015. In 2015, I think the community still had doubts about if we could be good, what we would do, what direction we would move in, and I think now they have confidence in us again. …  I do believe over the past seven years we’ve earned the trust of the community. And so I think that’s key. I think if there’s trust, you can continue to get better.”

Q: Where do you see Bibb Schools in a decade or two?

A: “So, in the year 2032, my hope would be that Dr. Sims is still here as superintendent. That longevity will have turned into increased student achievement with more teachers buying into the vision that he and that particular board have put in place.

I would see updated facilities that have continued to be there, the technologies continue to be updated, and that the thing that we put in place with VIP has grown into something even better: A sense of pride. I think it can be there, but I think it’s going to take what I saw when I arrived 2015. I had great community support. They supported me in ways that I didn’t fully understand. It’s going to take that consistent effort across the way.

I think I’ve come to learn that public education is fragile and we need to support it in a conscious way and not just assume that it will always be there because it can change and it can go that way with leadership quicker than we think.”

Q: So, VIP. Do you think that will still be a culture kind of thing here in a decade or so or even, you know, next year?

A: You know, I have no idea. And the reason I say that is I think it depends on where the boards go. I mean, when I got here in 2015, I didn’t know it was going to be here. I mean, it’s what we were able to create.

Here’s what I do know, though …  people who are with us have grown. They have taken part of that with them. And so there are going to be some things that I’m going to say will remain in the people who experienced it and saw it. And I think it’s part of that learning and growth and experience that they have in so many ways. It will still be here. But I think just like you and I, it’s going to evolve and hopefully get better.”

District Finances

School districts received more money from the federal government to cover unexpected costs related to the pandemic through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan fund.

The extra cash has helped pay for things like cleaning supplies, a new school counselor and technology for remote virtual learning. It has also helped delay some tough cost-cutting decisions the district will soon be faced with. Pandemic related funding is expected to end soon.

Bibb Schools Chief Financial Officer Sharon Roberts has said the school board will start having to find ways to reduce expenses, particularly amid inflation and increased costs for certain items due to the war in Ukraine.

Q: What do you think the main issues are in education broadly and in big schools?

A: “I think across the board, education is going to have to deal with funding. What we have found because of the pandemic is that the federal government and the state gave us a lot of money and we have been able to address many of the needs that we’ve not been able to address before.

We’ve also been able to address some students that had other issues that showed up in discipline and attendance. And so one thing I think all schools are going to have to deal with is what happens when all that federal money and state support starts falling away. Right now, the economy has been going well. The state coffers have been good. So we’re getting funded. But to be truthful, we’re now getting probably what I think is the appropriate amount of money for new things that we have to do because education today is not like it was 50 years ago and the funding formula is now pretty old.”

Teacher Shortage

Middle Georgia State University third year teaching students, from left, Hannah Nichols, Emily Dent, Myah Anderson, and Raven Moffitt work through techniques to teach fourth grade students the basics of fractions. Their final year in the MGA program will see them teaching full time in an area school. (Grant Blankenship | GPB)

Fewer people are studying to become teachers and the job has only gotten harder. A pandemic that interrupted instruction, divisive politics that have placed educators at the center of culture debates, poor pay and increased responsibilities are among factors that have resulted in fewer education majors at colleges.

Bibb Schools has had virtual teachers since 2016, but in November the school board voted to hire 14 more amid a teacher shortage.

Dozens of retiring educators were honored at a recent school board meeting and recruiting new ones from a shrinking pool of education majors is a challenge districts across the country are facing.

Q: We’ve heard in general that there has been kind of an exodus of teachers here in Bibb County. What can you say about it? 

A: “Traditionally, we hire about 200 teachers a year. I would anticipate that that’s what the number would be again. I have seen some national articles and stories, even on TV where they’re talking about teachers just leaving the profession. And I will tell you that in some ways, it’s because it’s gotten harder to teach for a couple of reasons.

The pandemic has affected us now for three years. So, if you think about a teacher who came on … the year before last, they didn’t know what it was like to have a kid all day, five days a week. That’s stressful. And we were not able to properly prepare all of them for what that looked like because we ended up having two years of teachers that we were preparing and the year before that had not really gone through their second year. And so it becomes, that’s different.

Usually we say that a teacher is a veteran teacher when they get five years or more. Just think about it, we now have some teachers who are approaching their fourth year and three years of that was pandemic. And so it can be stressful. That’s challenging. …

We’re going to have to continue to show support for public education as well as for public school teachers and be able to provide them with that level of professional respect that they deserve.

There used to be a time when a teacher was one of the most educated people in the community. That’s not necessarily so anymore, but they have our most precious resource. They have our children. And we have to recognize that we, educators and parents, are on the same team. We want what’s best for kids.”

Safety & Mental Health

Months before the mass school shooting in which 19 students and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Jones and other superintendents had met with Gov. Brian Kemp for a roundtable meeting about safety in schools at the Governor’s Mansion.

During the March meeting, Jones told the governor four Bibb students had died by suicide, according to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The youngest was in elementary school and more students have died by suicide since that meeting, according to Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones.

Students eat lunch recntly at Rutland High School. Rutland High and Rutland Middle School are the most racially balanced schools in the Bibb County school system. (Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting)

Q: A few months ago, in a conversation with the governor, you mentioned some student suicides. And I wondered if mental health has become more of a need that the district is having to work harder to address or is about kind of the same status when you came on?  

A: “When I came to Bibb, there was a high amount of crime in the community and the school system is going to reflect the community. And I think if you have issues in the community, it shows up in different ways. In some ways, that shows up in school shootings. In some ways, it shows up with kids having trauma on the weekend and they bring it to school.

My personal belief is a child probably shouldn’t have to see anyone shot. I think too many of our students see that and they deal with it. I think too many of our students are having to deal with other issues at home on the weekends and in the evenings, and we’re asking them to go into something different when they come to the school place.

I’ve had a conversation with some students where they said, ‘Yeah, I brought a pistol to school, but I’m not worried about what’s happening in schools, it’s what happens afterwards.’ I’ve seen a video where we saw students getting off a bus and then there were some shootings that happened very close to that. We’ve got to figure out how to deal with that. And so for me, those are issues that still concern me that I think need to be addressed and I’m hopeful that we as a community can address all of it. … But we still got to keep going because we’re not where we need to be. …

We’ve always had a suicide hotline at the state level, at the school level, district level as well. But it just seems to me that for a period of time there, every other month, I was hearing about something that was happening. And at that particular time, we’d had a case where the coroner here, he talked about maybe it was suicide and that concerned me. And I wanted him to know that that’s an issue that I don’t think is just unique to Bibb, but it’s out there that needs to be looked at. And what can we do to help students deal with all these things that are coming together? And so that was what I was thinking. And so the conversation was we’ve had a lot of suicides in Bibb … But the point is, I wanted him to recognize we have the issues and he, I think, can help us get those addressed. So you can talk about securing schools, but if you want safety, you’ve got to be able to look at those other issues as well.”

Q: The governor signed into law permitless carry statewide, which even lots of law enforcement officials said would just make it a lot easier for people to have guns just sort of available, handy. I’m wondering, from your perspective as an educator leading a district knowing or imagining what that could mean for gun availability, how that changes the calculus of the challenge of keeping guns out of kids hands who are struggling.

A: “We’ve had the experience where we’ve had elementary students bring a weapon to school. Found it at home. It was a grandparent’s weapon and they brought it to school for show and tell. For me, that’s a problem. And for me, the answer is: hold adults accountable for what it is they let their children get into.

I do believe that the more availability of weapons, the easier it is for that to occur and my preference would be to have less weapons available for students to be able to get their hands on. I think we already know that mentally students take years to develop the faculties to be able to make wise decisions sometimes and I just don’t want to see that become an issue that we have to continue to deal with. We have too many shootings in Macon-Bibb now and I do see more weapons making that possible to have even more.”

Declining enrollment & school closures 

Enrollment projections for Bibb County Schools. (Screen grab)

As is the case with public school districts across the country, student enrollment in Bibb Schools is declining and the trend isn’t expected to reverse itself anytime soon. Enrollment is down 15% compared to a decade ago. Fewer students translates into fewer state dollars for the district and has prompted discussion about the need to right-size the number of schools.

In a special meeting on the budget recently, Jones said he doesn’t see how the district can avoid school closures in coming years. He anticipates those discussions will occurr with the next ESPLOST, which stands for Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and is a penny sales tax voters approve to fund specific capital improvements for the school district.

Q: I wanted to talk a little bit about the trend and the declining enrollment and the unavoidable issue that the school board is going to have to discuss about closing schools. Could you just talk a little bit about how that kind of worked out or shook out for you here so far and what you expect will be some challenges?

A: “I intentionally did not create a new strategic plan for our school district because I thought the new superintendent and board needed to take time to look at that. And once they decide what they want to do over the next five years, it will give them an opportunity to address some issues that are there.

When I arrived in 2015, we had some schools that were undersized. That was the theory that we had that if you have a small campus, then it’s easier for parents to recognize that school and support it. That number of undersized schools for us has now increased and so it is now at a number where, truthfully, if the pandemic hadn’t hit, I think we would have talked about it before … I think we’re at a point now of being able to have an honest conversation and I think an honest conversation with the community and with the school board includes at least two aspects. One is: How many schools  do we really think we need? And what is it we’re going to do in order to get to that number? And if that is to consolidate schools, then what happens with the old facilities? Do they continue to be there or do we find another use for them? What is that going to lead to?

We had just a recent experience where we opened a new Appling Middle School and the community wanted to keep the old Appling Middle School functional. … We need to be careful with saying we just want to keep it open for the sake that people can remember this is where they went to school. That’s just not reasonable. The question – the statement becomes – as things grow and improve, some of the old things have to go away … Some people still want to drive a car that was a 1955 Chevy, but not everybody because that car is not as safe and is not as convenient. So I think we have to look at that. And I think the community is now beginning to have a way to have that conversation about how many students do we have? Which school should they be in? How do we make it available for every student no matter where they live in the county? And how do we now address the other buildings that we may not have a need for? … . The next ESPLOST is now, I think, going to have to look at what this consolidation could look like. So my belief is that it’s going to be ‘25, ‘26, ‘27. when you are going to really see that (school closure) conversation kick off.”

Q: What is some advice you might give to Dr. Sims about how to go about closing a school, if that’s needed, and what it means for a community or student?

A: “The best advice is to go with the data. What is the school size that you believe needs to be supported and how do you communicate that to everybody? How do you let the community see what the issues are?

You know, truthfully, what I’ve learned is that the more transparent you are and the way you’re willing to share information, people can see how you got to the decision you got to. If you’re not willing to share, then it’s going to be hard for them to see how you got from this point to that point.

And so we have done a pretty good job of that in past ESPLOST discussions. Here’s what it is we’re looking at. If you may remember, in the last one, we talked about where we wanted to consolidate two elementary schools and we talked about Williams and Brookdale and Riley. That was an open conversation that we had with the community and we talked about the pros and the cons for each one. We looked at all the options that we had available and they were able to make a decision. If you go back to 2010 and look at the ESPLOST they did there, that Board of Education was able to consolidate about six schools because they saw that’s what the need was at that particular time.

This board is going to have to look at what that now means for them as they move forward. Our community supported those. That’s why we now have a Martin Luther King Elementary School. That’s why we now have the new Northeast High School. That’s why we have the new Southfield. We were able to consolidate schools. And so it’s not something we haven’t done in the past. It’s just whenever you change where a person goes, change is hard to deal with and you have to figure out what that looks like.”

The new superintendent

Superintendent Curtis Jones, left, secures a Victory in Progress pin to incoming Superintendent Dan Sims’ coat at the May 10 meeting solidifying Sims as the district’s next leader. (Bibb County School Districty)

Q: If it were all up to you, who would you have picked for superintendent?

A: “I believe that we had quality candidates inside the district. I did not make it a secret. My belief was that Tanzy Kilcrease would have been an excellent superintendent for the Bibb County School system.

I do not have all the information that our Board of Education had. And so my decision, I can’t say was better than the one they made. They had more data and I tend to go with ‘Use the data to help you get to where you need to go.’ I know Tanzy a lot better than I know Dan Sims, so I know what I know and I also now know what I don’t know.

At the end of the day, it’s really not who I would have picked, but it’s who the board picked. And I just have to believe the process that is in place has found the best superintendent for Bibb County.”

Q: It’s no secret there was a lot of support for Tanzy Kilcrease to get the job. Do you think employee morale has changed in the district because of the board’s decision not to promote from within?

A: “The community has accepted in large ways the board’s decision. I think they’ve gotten to see Dr. Sims and figure out a little bit more about him. But I also think they’re happy with what Tanzy has done. She’s now moved on to the Georgia Department of Education. She has an amazing position with a lot of responsibilities and they’ve given her even more. And I think in some ways the people who know her are happy for her. She’s happy, I know that. And so and that’s a good place to be. …

If you saw the play, “Hamilton,” Tanzy taught them how to say goodbye, that you don’t always get the position you applied for. It may not be what God has in mind for you at this point in time for different reasons. Learn from it and then move forward. And I think that’s what she was able to see and I think that’s what employees saw as well. And I hope that that’s what they see in the way I’m trying to do my transition with Dr. Sims. I want him to be successful. And so it’s like, ‘How do you say goodbye? And how do you do it in a way that lives up to who you are with your reputation?’

Q: Why do you think the board picked Dan Sims?

A: I can’t answer that. I don’t know. Other than he was the one they thought was best qualified.

Q: What does Dan Sims need to know about the job?

A: “He and I have had some of those conversations. When I leave here today, we’re going to have another one. We have an opportunity to share information. What I just think he needs to know is that right now he has a board that is fully supportive of him and that he needs to develop a strategic needs to learn our district, learn our employees, give it that new look of eyes that he’s going to bring, get his team together and then go with it. I’m going to say, don’t be held back by the past and don’t be held back by other people’s expectations. You can only do what you can do.

I remember when I arrived, people wanted me to say things early and my statement to them was, ‘We’re not ready to do that. We have to put in place some things fundamentally so we can have a solid foundation.’ He needs time to put together a solid foundation as well, which gets me back to what I said before. It needs to be a long term superintendency for him that he’s committed to, that will allow him to put in place this plan so he can see the results of it. And five years, seven years, I think, are good targets for that.”

Q: Where can the district improve?

A: “There are still places for us to improve in the delivery of instruction to our students because we do have a bunch of new teachers and so they need to continue to grow and develop. We still need to be able to produce, I’m going to say, better quantitative data for parents …

When I arrived, the number of incidents where students got sent to the office was like 16,000. We’ve cut that down to 6,000. Schools are safer now, a lot safer. And yet when people come in, they hear the stories about the community and they don’t realize that we’re a lot better. So we can still do a better job of communicating those kinds of things so we can still get better. …

I think we can continue to do a better job of trying to keep some of our better teachers. I hope that we’re able to figure out a way to pay them better. I hope we can figure out a way to keep class sizes fairly small. I’d like to be able to keep our curriculum up to date as well so that when people decide to put their child in a private school or some other learning environment, they really see the cost is not really worth that return. We have a lot of good things to offer.

I said this once that when I went to visit the old Northeast High School, I wasn’t sure I want my grandkids to go there. We fixed it up. We have a good principal there. We have good teachers. We have a great facility. I don’t have a problem with my grandchildren or children now going to any school in Bibb and that’s always a standard that I’ve had. And so I’m happy with that. But I want more people to get to that point where they’re happy with that decision too.”

Q: You won’t be a stranger in Bibb County, right? Will you come back sometime?

A: “I will come back. I don’t plan on being a stranger. I shared, I think, that some of the best people I’ve worked with are here in Bibb. I plan on staying in touch. I don’t plan on being in Dr. Sims’ way and I’m not going to be a person people can call and say, ‘Hey, here’s what he’s doing. What do you think about that?’ But I’ve been here for seven years, so there are some connections that I’m sure I will keep.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected] Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter Grant Blankenship contributed to this story.