By Christopher Smith
After several years of “frustrating” state and federal budget cuts, new Superintendent Judy Gilreath says Whitfield County Schools “has been cut down to the bare muscle.”
But despite the financial difficulties hanging over county schools, Gilreath accepted the offer by school board members to captain the school system after then-superintendent Danny Hayes announced his sudden retirement earlier this month.
Gilreath, who was sworn in on March 15, says the position has already brought “long, sometimes 12-hour work days and lots of new duties.”
So why did she take the job?
“I think I can make a difference in more lives this way,” she said. “I know that I will get criticism and make mistakes. I fully expect (the media) to report it, too. That’s only fair. People feel comfortable with coming to me and talking to me ... and one of (their) main jobs is to argue with me about issues and … I do not want to lose that openness that I have with people because I think that’s something we have got to have in this system.”
Gilreath started the first two weeks of her tenure by shifting several administrators’ titles and duties to be more cost-effective. But one thing she says won’t change is herself.
“I’m the same person in a different chair,” she said. “I’m here to support principals and teachers if they need me. That’s the way it works: principals support the teachers and teachers support the children and parents. But people who have dealt with me know how I always think, ‘How would I feel if I was in this situation?’
“I treat people with respect and treat them how I would want to be treated or how I would want my children — well, now I say grandchildren — to be treated. I think parents and teachers just need somebody to talk to if they’re frustrated with something. And I hope to be a friend who will listen to them.”
Listening is the first step to keeping the school system on the right path, Gilreath said.
“We’ve got to have help from everyone in the community,” she said. “Schools can no longer do it on their own. That’s why I’m excited about the community Readers to Leaders literacy initiative.”
Readers to Leaders is a collaborative effort by community leaders and school officials in Whitfield County and Dalton to ensure all local children are reading at grade level by the third grade through several reading programs. Gilreath says it’s one step to “leveling the playing field.”
“When I looked around the district there were discrepancies,” she said. “Discrepancies between the south of the county and the north side. Title money (federal funding) was going to the south of the county based on the poverty rate (residents in the south are more impoverished). That info is based on free and reduced lunch applications.
“So, on the north side you couldn’t always afford computers or technology because you didn’t have Title money. My goal is to have every school offer the same quality education to their students … it doesn’t matter where you are … I want you to have the same chances, the same resources.”
Working with the community during tough economic times
One of Gilreath’s other goals is for school officials to be more open with the public to avoid “misunderstandings and misconceptions.”
“I think some of the misconceptions and criticism we get is with the school budget and how we spend our money and how we can spend our money,” she said. “Sometimes we have someone who donates the money and they want it to be spent in a specific way and we honor that and sometimes that can lead people to ask why one school has one thing and another school doesn’t.”
Federal and state funding only complicates public perception, Gilreath added.
“A lot of people in the community say we shouldn’t be spending money where we are (like building Coahulla Creek High School and the new Eastbrook Middle School),” she said. “But they have to realize that things like ESPLOST (education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), federal funding, funding of staff development ... we’re limited to spend the money in certain ways (by state and federal guidelines attached to the dollars).”
School officials received criticism at several meetings last year for raising property tax rates to keep the system from bankrupting in the near future. Several residents who attended the meetings believed ESPLOST money should help pay for operational costs like salaries even though it’s legally limited to technology and construction costs, while others believed the tax increase was too great and too sudden.
The Board of Education voted on Sept. 28, 2012, to raise the property tax rate from 14.756 mills to 18.756 mills, nearing a 20-mill cap, to keep the system going until 2015. Gilreath says finding financial stability after 2015 is the “biggest obstacle facing our education system.”
“We’ve been getting cut every year,” she said. “We had some things we could cut out that would not deeply effect the education of the children ... now it’s becoming so frustrating to me that we are not getting the money we need from the state Department of Education. Eighty-five percent of our budget is personnel and we do not want to cut that ever.” The school system currently employs more than 1,500 people.
To get through the tough times will “take patience,” Gilreath added.
That’s something she learned from her family.
Outside of the office
When Gilreath isn’t managing a system of more than 13,000 students, she spends time “relaxing with kids and grandchildren.”
“I sew, I cook,” she said. “I get a lot of relaxation out of it. I’m the mother of three children and I have 11 grandchildren. My son is a minister in Florence, Ala. My daughter has three children and is staying home with them. She previously taught at Valley Point Elementary. My other daughter is a registered nurse and has worked in home health for the last few years.”
Gathering her adult kids and their children under one roof “to cook really big meals” is the highlight of her time as a grandmother, Gilreath said.
“I just love children,” she said. “They’ve always been important in my life. I always thought I would be content as a teacher. I never thought I wanted to get into administration, but you get to a point in your life ... where you think you could do better in this side.”
And reaching the level of superintendent feels like payoff for a life of hard work, Gilreath said.
“I didn’t come from a lot of wealth,” she said. “I worked three jobs to put myself through college. I thought I understood poverty, but the more I’ve read I realize I didn’t. When I started teaching, some of the children I had came with ... attitudes that I thought were sassy or talking back ... or rude. I read ‘Understanding Poverty’ by Ruby Payne and that helped me see how some kids come from different backgrounds ... it helps me to be more patient with them when teaching.”
Teaching has been Gilreath’s drive since she can remember.
“I’ve always been a little bit bossy,” she joked. “I was as a child. I actually decided what I wanted to be when I was in high school ... I knew I wanted to be a teacher. When I got my degree, I started.”
But graduation didn’t come easy.
“I spent a lot of time being a secretary,” she said. “That’s how I managed through school. When my (late) husband (Barry Gilreath) and I married, I had two years of college and he had two years. And I went to work as an Army secretary. He graduated and I was a secretary to the Habersham County telephone company ... this was before I went back and got my degree in (secondary education). So that gave me pretty strong clerical skills.”
And people skills, Gilreath added.
“I’m the kind of person who gives out my personal cell number,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me. I get calls on the weekends and I answer it. I don’t ever want to forget what it was like to be a teacher or a parent and to need the support of an administrator. That’s especially true for teachers and principals, because they’re the ones on the firing line (when things go wrong). If I forget what it’s like to be one of them, it’s time for me to go home.”
How to contact Gilreath
Work cellphone: (706) 260-5265
Personal cellphone: (423) 463-1099
• A bachelor of science in secondary education, a master’s degree in elementary education and a doctorate of education in curriculum and instruction.
• Worked in education for 25 years, beginning in Chattooga County Schools.
• Joined Whitfield County Schools in 2001.
• Has served as principal of Pleasant Grove Elementary School and most recently was assistant superintendent for student support.
• Contract as superintendent runs through June 30, 2014.