For a Tennessee native, William Mathis fits in well as a rural New Englander. And for a counselor by training, he sure makes a capable superintendent--one who was just recognized as one of AASA's four national Superintendent of the Year finalists.
The respect at home was evident at an event marking his 20th year leading Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Vermont last spring. The annual meeting/pizza party for all 11 school boards, spread across eight towns, traditionally means talk about goals and budgets. The addendum: a surprise cake and celebration with the whole lot of current and former board members.
There were "all the usual bad jokes," Mathis says. District Business Manager Brenda Fleming argues that "it was a very gentle roasting." The board chair wrote a poem "incorporating all the words Bill used in his monthly superintendent's report that she needed to look up in the dictionary," she says. "My feeling from that party was one of immense pride. We're proud to be able to say we work with Bill Mathis."
Having covered nearly all angles of education, Mathis would be welcome just about anywhere. From guidance counselor and adult vocational educator, he moved to the state and university levels. School finance, assessment and education policy consulting has meant stints with the U.S. Department of Education. He's spoken on Capitol Hill.
This background allows the superintendent to link classroom practice to federal policy. What about the lack of K-12 classroom experience? "I compensate ... by being in classrooms a lot," he says.
"His contributions could not be overstated," says Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, for which Mathis chairs the educational finance committee. Take his leading role in the equity case Brigham v. State of Vermont. "I was the lucky fella who sued the state," Mathis says. "That's how we ended up with the most equitable funding system in the nation."
At home, he says, dinner-on-the-go and simultaneous board meetings are common. "I'll spend an hour in one, go to another, divvy up meetings with my business manager and things of that sort. I'm trying to invent the 28-hour day."
Summers include adjunct teaching. In Mathis' educational finance course, lessons on "Zen and the Art of School Administration" cover listening skills. "If hit by a crowd of people you weren't expecting [who are] arguing about jelly donuts or the color of the gym or some other issue, give them attention," he advises.
Finance, to Mathis, is about values, not numbers. "How society chooses to spend its money is a reflection of that society's values," he says. Fleming adds, "His first is children and what is best for children."
His ancestors felt the same. Upon returning to his Civil War-torn Tennessee town, Mathis' great-grandfather built a school first. He and the next two generations of the family taught at Seal-Mathis School. In the most prominent place on the superintendent's office wall, Mathis sees his own name--on his grandfather's 1893 teaching certificate.
Another hero: the late Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology whose work was the basis of Mathis' grad school thesis. The day they met in person was a "transforming" one, Mathis says. Maslow's dedication to humanity struck him most.
That dedication resonates around the superintendent. "He's a very sharing individual, allowing others to benefit from the work that he's done without seeking credit for that work," Francis says, noting Mathis' steady work ethic.
Professional learning is also highly valued. The performance pay scale Mathis designed rewards teachers for new skills, and he constantly updates his own. "I can't conceive of not being a continuous learner," he says. "It's something all human beings should do." DA
Melissa Ezarik is features editor.