Superintendent Jackson reflects on first six months, moving forward, at BOE retreat

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PITTSBORO — In addition to extending universal masking and approving two COVID-related funds last week, the CCS Board of Education also discussed Superintendent Anthony Jackson’s first six months on the job, the development of the district’s next strategic plan and staffing shortages at the system’s schools.

Jackson, former superintendent from Vance County Schools in Henderson, was selected as CCS’s permanent superintendent in May — six months after former superintendent Derrick Jordan announced his departure to the Department of Public Instruction after 12 years in Chatham. He was replaced by Randy Bridges, a long-time educator and superintendent, who was hired to serve in an interim role until the board found a permanent superintendent.

Jackson began July 6 — starting as superintendent ahead of the third school year impacted by the pandemic, and the first in which students would attend in-person class five days a week.

“I so look forward to today. I know with everything going on it sometimes gets very hairy around what we do, but I’ve been here six months and I know it feels longer — some days it feels longer to me, some days it feels shorter,” Jackson told the board at its mid-year retreat last Tuesday. “Today is really that opportunity for us to begin to talk about who we are and why we do what we do, but more, how we build a relationship between me and you. … We can’t do good work unless we’re comfortable with one another.”

The meeting began with a nearly four-hour executive leadership training for board members and Jackson, led by Larry Coble, the managing associate of On Track Press Inc. Among many things, the training included discussion and individual reflections on powerful learning experiences, understanding Myers-Briggs personality types and identifying and understanding basic motivating drives. (Fun fact: four of the board members are introverts, though the identities of those four were not revealed at the meeting. Jackson is an extrovert.)

The board then heard an “entry report” from Jackson regarding his first six months on the job. He discussed feedback he heard from the community during his listening and learning tour, areas of focus for the district moving forward and plans for the district’s strategic planning process.

During the 2015-2016 school year, Chatham County Schools developed the current Strategic Plan called Flight Plan 2020. Last year, the board of education approved the extension of the plan for one year.

That process for the new plan, “One Chatham,” started this month with the BOE retreat and is expected to be completed prior to the 2022-23 school year.

The full cost of the strategic planning process is unknown at this time, the district said, but the process usually utilizes local professional development, with the district funding any expenses needed to support activities.

“This is an ambitious timeline,” the meeting agenda item said, “but we would like to align this process with the accreditation process that will take place that year as well.”

Moving forward, Jackson said the district will emphasize: better communication between district and its stakeholders, prioritizing student health and safety, improving school equity, articulating a clear school vision and aligning opportunities with access and resources as the school system grows.

Jackson also discussed the challenges CCS is facing regarding staffing shortages. In 2021-22, 187 employees resigned and 35 retired, up from 123 and 25 in 2020-21, respectively, according to district data. This year, there are 88 vacancies, as of the January presentation, including 23 instruction assistants, 12 elementary teachers and 11 school nutrition assistants, among others. The district has approved recruitment and retainment bonuses using COVID-relief funds, but even with extra COVID-19 funding, finding new employees isn’t an easy task.

Lower pay than in private sectors and often sparse benefits, particularly for part-time or hourly workers, has long led to school staffing shortages, national labor advocates say, and the pandemic has only emphasized such factors. At last week’s retreat, Jackson stressed that neighboring districts were all competing for the same employees, some of whom are leaving education all together for better pay and benefits.

“COVID has changed us, but have we changed? That becomes the real question,” he said. “We will have to come to terms with whether we are trying to maintain a pre-COVID school system.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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