Gray leaves legacy of success

Thursday, June 9, 2011

First of two parts. See the second part here.


School Superintendent Ed Gray retires at the end of this month following more than four decades as a teacher and administrator. (T-G Photo by John I. Carney)

"I got my golf clubs out," said Ed Gray. "I haven't used them, but I'm talking to them."

As Bedford County's school superintendent counts down the days toward the end of his 44-year career as a full-time educator, he expects not only to play golf but to remain active in Bedford County, and active in education -- just not at the same time.

Gray said any future projects related to education will be outside the county, and that he's assured his successor, Ray Butrum, that he doesn't intend to meddle in the local school system once he retires.

"He won't ever hear me criticize or critique education in Bedford County," said Gray. "I will be one of his biggest supporters." Gray said his own predecessor, Mike Bone, did the same for him.

Gray said one of the drawbacks of the old system of elected school superintendents was that a defeated candidate would often spend the next four years attempting to undermine his opponent, something he called disruptive to the educational process.

During Gray's last contract negotiation, he personally suggested that his tenure rights as a teacher be waived as part of the contract, so that once he was done, he was done.

Gray formally announced in January that he would retire June 30. The local school board contracted with Tennessee School Boards Association to manage a search process which resulted in a short list of four candidates for the board to interview. The board chose Butrum, who was assistant principal at Barfield Elementary School in Rutherford County, to take office beginning July 1.

A 44-year career

Gray, who majored in biology and chemistry at Middle Tennessee State University after two years at Martin College (now Martin Methodist University), went to work after graduation in the lab at Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville. But then, he decided to put his name in MTSU's placement office.

He interviewed for teaching jobs in Franklin and Marshall counties, thinking he didn't want to return to Bedford County so soon.

Gray was hired as a teacher at Forrest High School in Chapel Hill in 1966. He taught for three years before becoming assistant principal under Norman Henson. When Henson left education for the corporate world, he suggested Gray, then in only his fifth year as an educator, as his successor. Gray was principal at Forrest for 18 years before moving to Lewis County for a year and Giles County for three years.

He came home to Bedford County in 1987, becoming principal of Community School, which was then a K-12 facility. Three years later, he moved to the school system central office, serving as special education supervisor and then assistant superintendent to Mike Bone.

"I had known Mike practically all my life," said Gray, calling Bone and Henson his two favorite bosses.

Bone was Bedford County's last elected superintendent, elected in 1996 as the state was preparing to make superintendents an appointed position. (Many counties now use the term "director of schools"; Bedford County has retained the name "superintendent.")

Gray said Bone managed the big picture items, leaving Gray to deal with day-to-day problems. "We made a good team, I thought," said Gray.

"Mike was very adept at handling the political side of this job," said Gray. "...I was more comfortable just running the school system."

But Gray said that during Bone's tenure, he built relationships with county commissioners. And when Bone decided to retire, Gray had specific programs he wanted to see through, and so he put his name into consideration for the top job. He became superintendent in July 2005.

In spite of his praise for the working relationship he had with Bone, he himself never hired an assistant superintendent.

"That position has been in the budget," said Gray. "I just never filled that position." He said all of the potential candidates were needed at their current positions and he wouldn't have wanted to move them.

Nevertheless, Gray predicted the county will soon have an assistant superintendent. "I think Dr. Butrum will fill the job, and I think he should."

Accomplishments

Gray supervised the completion of a $44 million building program that had been initiated under Bone's tenure. But his first thoughts when it comes to accomplishments have to do with academics.

"Education needs to center around what's best for kids," said Gray.

He's proud of a dual-credit program with Motlow State Community College which allows high school students to earn college credit, and says he looks forward to the day when, as in some other communities, a student graduates from high school and college in the same weekend.

He's also proud of the school system's credit recovery program. Instead of the old-fashioned, punitive summer school, students now have chances year-round to make up classes they've failed. And the credit recovery program is skill-based; if a student can master the content in one week, they're done; if they take six weeks, that's OK as well.

An out-of-school suspension program is another accomplishment of which Gray is proud. In the past, suspension meant a free day for some students, taking away some of its deterrence. Now, students who are suspended out of school must attend a supervised program.

Gray praised the cooperation of law enforcement -- both current Sheriff Randall Boyce and former Sheriff Clay Parker -- and Juvenile Judge Charles Rich with helping to ensure the program's success. If a student fails to show up for supervised suspension, he or she can be sentenced to 24 hours in juvenile detention.

"This program has cut our out-of-school suspensions by 60 percent," he said.

He also listed the creation of Thomas Magnet School as an accomplishment. Federal No Child Left Behind mandates force the school system to make sure that the lowest-performing students receive attention, but sometimes that means that high-achieving children don't get the attention they need to thrive.

"If you concentrate on just one end of that, it doesn't work," said Gray.

A magnet school program for high-achieving kids helps make sure that they have the opportunity to make the most of their time in elementary school.

Gray also praised the current membership of Bedford County Board of Education. "I feel grateful that I work for the best school board that I've ever seen right now." He said the good relationships within the school board and between the school board and the county commission are unique.

On Friday

In the second part of the Times-Gazette's interview with outgoing School Superintendent Ed Gray, he speaks frankly about the federal No Child Left Behind program, teacher accountability, and whether the federal government has a legal right to set educational policy.

Reception

Bedford County Board of Education will host a reception for retiring School Superintendent Ed Gray Thursday, June 16, from 4:30 until 6 p.m. at the Chamber of Commerce building on Cannon Boulevard.