Supt. Moss discusses his time in Lee County
With Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss taking over the Beaufort County, S.C., school system July 1, The Herald sat down with him to conduct a final question-and-answer session touching on a variety of issues. The following transcript was edited for length, clarity and style.
Sanford Herald: What are you going to miss most about the job here?
Jeff Moss: "I think what I'll miss most about the job here is visiting the classrooms."
SH: Why is that?
JM: "We have some excellent teachers in the system, and there is nothing that warms, I think, a person’s body more than watching good teaching. Or for me it doesn't. Whenever I had a bad day — and you do have a couple of those as superintendent — but whenever I had a bad day I could go out into a school, visit teachers’ classrooms and just watch that magic happen. Watching the kids interacting with our teachers and our staff members, how they embraced the students and how the students embraced them, it makes everything — it puts everything in perspective. So regardless of how terrible a day you’re having, you go out there and you get lost in education. You get lost in the true magic of teaching, and I think that’s what I’ll miss the most here. We have 16 wonderful campuses, and all obviously have a different clientele and they have some uniqueness about themselves, but it's such that they do a wonderful job.
JM: "The second part would be the people. We have, When you look at our community, we have some strong supporters. You look at our educational foundation, our business leaders, our chamber; they truly want a first-class school system, and they’re willing to put the time, effort and energy into making that happen. And it’s rare that you find such a majority of a community willing to do that. And it’s not just about their kids because some of these folks don’t have kids in our school system."
SH: Had you not seen that kind of support in previous counties?
JM: "Well, you see it in previous counties but not as widespread. Look at our Head of Class award. You can’t find that replicated anywhere in the state, and that’s community members that came together and said, 'This is what were going to do.'
JM: "The support we’ve had for digital learning, it would’ve been real easy for people to turn their backs on it but no, they faced it forward and said, 'No, you’re right, this is what’s best for our kids and we're going to stand toe-to-toe with you, and this is what we’re going to do.' And there have been, I mean, it's not been a bed of roses, obviously. We've had many challenges and opportunities, and one step forward and two steps back, in the process. But everyone’s been forgiving enough to where right now I think everyone embraces it and it's running pretty smoothly.
JM: "... Third is just this market and by this market I mean being here in the center part of the state, having access to a lot of resources, the media, political. ... In terms of being able to influence what happens across the state we have so much to offer."
SH: OK, very good. Let me ask you, then, a related question: What was your least favorite part, or what are you going to miss the least?
JM: (Laughs) "I think, today in public education, you find yourself continuously defending what you do. So I think my least favorite, the thing I'll miss the least, will be having to defend public education and having to defend some of the things we do and some of the things we ask for. It is part of the job and that’s going to be a challenge for the next superintendent, Andy Bryan. It's going to be a challenge for whoever follows him. It's going to be a challenge in the foreseeable future, just defending what we do in public education to our elected officials, who I truly want to believe want the best for all children. But sometimes you look at their actions and you have to wonder."
SH: You mentioned Andy. How have you been kind of helping him prepare for this role?
JM: "You know, that’s been a real easy job, and I say easy because Andy and I have worked together now for four-and-a-half years and he was here, what, two-and-a-half years before I arrived? From the very beginning, we had a great conversation the first week here in the office, and ever since we've been lock step in all the initiative and all the conversations we’ve had. ... Now obviously it will be different, and it should be. No two individuals are the same. Andy will set his own mark and will do a great job for Lee County and a great job for the state of North Carolina, but obviously we probably come at things in two ways. I know part of what I get tagged with is I go straight ahead, 100 miles an hour, and I truly believe we don’t have any time to waste in a child’s life. Andy may be more diplomatic, but I still think he’s going to get the job done."
SH: Tell me a little about – obviously technology has been a big focus of yours. Tell me a little about some of the programs, you know, that you’d like to see continue.
JM: "Well STEM is one. ... If we're to survive as a nation, we have to better prepare our students with the foundational backgrounds in science and mathematics. I do believe digital learning can play a part everything we do. When you look at the world today, everything has something digitally connected to it. ... So technology has changed, I think, all of our lives. And what we have to do in public education is figure out where it fits. It doesn't fit every day and should not fit every day. But …if a teacher can send home their lecture on a flash drive or a student can download it on a digital device before they leave school, that student can replay it as many times as they want until they understand it. And then when they step in the classroom the next day, they’re ready to work. Now you've just saved time, and time is so important to education right now. We have 180 days to do a whole lot of stuff.
JM: "... Our two high school graduations, you know, a week ago, I would not be surprised at all if their graduation rates are over 90 percent. And it's come about because we engage students. We expect them to be involved in the educational process, and I would have to believe that the intro of digital instruction has played a part. … You’re more likely going to stay on task, you’re more likely going to pass the class, and if you pass the class, you’re more likely to be on target to graduate with your peers. So all of it fits together like a glove, or a set of dominoes. It’s not one thing, and I know we get asked all the time, ‘Can you prove technology has done this?’ Well no. Because number one, nothing replaces a teacher in a classroom. Nothing. … Now does it play a part? You betcha. It plays a huge part in what we do, but it’s not the sole reason we’re doing as well as we’re doing. It’s a piece of this whole puzzle. ..."
SH: If you’re looking back now were there any programs or initiatives you wanted to start and didn’t get the chance to, or want to expand more than they currently are?
JM: " I wish we had been able to do more with choice, quicker. I think it would’ve been really neat to see what a Montessori program would’ve looked like here. I think it would’ve been really neat to loop students at the elementary levels, and looping is where a teacher has them for multiple years before they leave them. Because think about it: how long does it take you to get to know everyone? And if you have 30 in a classroom or 25 in a classroom, by the end of the year you’re thinking I know how Jeff learns now. Imagine what you could do next year if you had me in the classroom for another year. And then you know you loop back and pick up with another group."
SH: Is that something the district has studied or considered?
JM: "We've talked, just like the other choice programs. I really hope to see the district move forward with some choice opportunities for some students. We should be providing parents with choice. … And I think when you look at choice programs, whether they’re classical programs, Montessori programs, STEM programs, arts, although we think we know your children — and we do, pretty much — a parent always knows the child. ..."
SH: As far as things that you did get done — you did accomplish or build on predecessors — what would you say you’re probably most proud of from your four-and-a-half years?
JM: "You know, strangely enough, one of the things would be the conversations we had with CAT and starting a youth apprenticeship program."
SH: As a former construction guy, I imagine that holds a special place in your heart.
JM: "It’s not just that. Its having that conversation with a business leader and being able to design a curriculum that’s going to ensure employment for a high school student that they’re interested in doing. ... And we need more of those. … It doesn’t have to be as large. It can be three to five students. But those kind of partnerships are great. I think our economic competitiveness committee did a great job of working with us and helping with the finance curriculum that we teach. We have, I think, a reinvigorated teacher academy program for high school students going out in our schools volunteering. They desire to be teachers, and we're giving them those early experiences so that they can help decide grade level and subject matter. It’s hard to pick one or two things. ..."
SH: I know you’ve done a lot of lobbying at the state level. Is there anything that the legislature, the General Assembly, could kind of do to help school districts like Lee County — or just the whole state in general — along?
JM: " I think so. I’m glad to see the governor is talking about a renewed focus on career/technical education. ... As I mentioned before, I believe in choice. I’m a choice advocate. I think we should have all the different opportunities we can have. I think it should be managed, and I really believe that the choice programs should work through a local board of education so they can help guide and direct what those choices need to be and not duplicate resources. Resource allocation is a huge problem in North Carolina right now. The General Assembly has historically cut funding for public education.
JM: "The number one thing the General Assembly and the governor could do that would put North Carolina rolling to the top of the 50 states is look after our teachers."
SH: You mean salaries?
JM: "Yes, that’s where I was going. They need to revisit that salary schedule. In my opinion, they need to have more like a 15-year salary schedule so that you don’t have teachers having to work 30 years to make a salary where they can raise a family. ... If not, I think we’ll lose them. And when you look at the starting salary, especially in those math and science areas, there is no incentive. If I could go to work for industry and double what you’re going to pay me to teach in a public school setting, or a charter school setting, or any educational setting, and I’m 22 years old, where am I going to go? So I think the top priority should be to focus on our teachers and give the salary schedule at a reasonable value so they can actually afford to live and raise a family. And the second thing they really need to focus on are our facilities. The public schools in N.C. do not have a mechanism in place to raise revenue but yet we’re held accountable for probably the vast majority of a county’s fixed assets in terms of buildings."
SH And as superintendent, how do you draw the line between political activism versus focusing on just purely local matters?
JM: "There’s always that tight wire you’re walking. And, and you do have to try not to gray the lines. For me, if I think it’s truly defending or promoting what it is we need in our schools. ... Every meeting I’ve ever attended has centered around education, and I think as long as that is the forefront of the conversation for a superintendent, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing."
SH: OK. And also, local politics. Do you think school officials, especially the superintendent, should be involved?
JM: "Probably not. Typically, you should have elected officials debating elected officials, and staff debating with staff. So a superintendent should have most of his or her conversations with the county managers and the town managers. And the elected officials on both, on all sides, should discuss all the other political issues that affect a school system."
SH: Is there anything in your own experiences with those that you regret? Either having done or having not done?
JM: "You know, over the last 30 years I’ve had more great relationships with the media than not great. There have been very few times. When we were litigating the budget stuff in Beaufort County, the media was there every day with cameras as you were walking in and out of the courtroom. I guess the only regrets are that you're not able to set the record straight to start off with. So that’s another thing the General Assembly could help us out with. They could give us a little more flexibility on what we’re able to say in certain situations."
SH: And finally, I’ll just ask you: if there’s any one thing that you could do — or that Andy Bryan could do in the future — that would help Lee County out more than anything, what would that be?
JM: (long pause) "The one thing that would help Lee County out, or would help any system out, would be a very strong recruitment program for talented teachers and administrators. The most important position in the school system is the teacher. Probably the second-most important is the principal. And even if my 114 counterparts were in the room with me, I’d say probably the third most important is the superintendent. We’re not the most important person in any room. That’s our teachers. Now obviously, we have to have a vision, and Andy’s going to have a strong vision for Lee County. ... But the most important person is the teacher in the classroom and you have to have a strong person in that.
SH: How do we stand locally as far as that goes?
JM: "I think we do a very good job. Better than average. I think we lose some talent, but when we lose that talent, its for a location, for instance. They’d rather live in Raleigh than live here. ... I think we do a very good job recruiting, and it’s a huge task upon our personnel department that consists of very few people. So I think its going to continue to be a challenge."
SH: OK, well I know we’ve been doing this a long time. Unless there’s any other thoughts that you had, that you want to add in?
JM: "The only thing would probably be when Andy assumes the superintendency in July, it’s a little bit better for Lee County because he already knows many of the players, or probably all the players, their personalities. He’s watched them for seven years. So he’s not necessarily hitting the ground as a new superintendent, as I did when I came here four-and-a-half years ago not knowing all of the players on the playing card.
SH: And you think that’ll help him?
JM: "I think that’s going to help him tremendously."
SH: "Alright. Are you going to come visit us from Hilton Head?"
JM: "Oh yeah. ... I still have a lot of reasons to come back to the area, and if I'm ever in the area, I'll definitely be stopping in and visiting people. These are what I consider life-long friends."
SH: Maybe you'll have time to catch a county commissioners meeting.
JM: "I probably won't do that. (Laughs again) I think I could spend my time more wisely."