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By Terry Lewis
ALBANY — Dougherty County School System Assistant Superintendent Jack Willis has been called “the man behind the curtain” at the DCSS. While Superintendent Butch Mosely has been the face of the system the past four years, Willis has been the one pulling the levers to keep the DCSS between the white lines.
In June, Willis and his good friend Mosely will retire together. Mosely, 75, will head to his farm in Climax and Willis, 78, to his gulf house in Panama City Beach, Fla. They will also take more than a century of experience in the field of education with them.
“It’s been a good run,” Willis said. “But it’s time to go,”
Willis, a native of Cordele, was just 20 years old when he entered his first classroom at Bradwell Institute in Hinesville.
“I had two kids in my first class — one that was older than me and the other was the same age as me,” Willis said. “In 1962, (then-DCSS superintendent) Paul Robertson called and offered me a job at Albany Junior High School. Then I left here and went to Cairo as their band director for 11 years. The last four years (in Cairo), I was superintendent of Grady County Schools.”
Willis later spent five years as superintendent in Coffee County until 1987, when took the job as principal at the new Burke County High School. He spent 11 years before, in 1998, he retired “for the first time.”
In 1975, while at Grady County, Willis gave a young Butch Mosely his first administrative job as principal at Whigham School.
“I really wanted June (Mosely’s teacher wife), but she said she wouldn’t come without him, so I had to hire Butch, too,” Willis said.
After his first retirement, Willis spent time at the beach and volunteering at the Bay County Jail helping inmates nearing their release dates learn how to transition back into society. He later worked with Mosley for a year while Mosely was superintendent of the Glynn County School System.
In January of 2013, shortly after Mosely had been hired in Dougherty County, Willis got a call from his old friend.
“Butch called me in late January and said, ‘You need to get up here to Dougherty County, we’ve got some work to do,’” Willis recalled. “He and I had met with two of the (DCSS) board members back in November at his hunting lodge in Climax. We had two pages of talking points. We said, ‘If you want us to come, this is what we’ll do and this is how we’ll do it.’
“They hired Butch the first of January.”
After a couple of weeks, Mosely told the board, “I need for Jack to come.”
“The reason I’m here now is because he and I had worked together back in 1975 when he worked for me,” Willis said. “The biggest factor in convincing me to come was to be able to work with him again. I knew what to expect here. I knew it would be busy but there would also be opportunity.”
Willis also knew the two were inheriting a system reeling from a CRCT cheating scandal while also dealing with state probes into the district’s finances.
“We realized the system had a massive perception problem,” Willis said. “So we went out of our way to be honest with the School Board, our employees and the public. We spent a lot of time trying to get all the good we can out of the good people we have.”
Test scores slowly increased, as have the graduation rates at the four high schools. But there have also been bumps along the way. The latest occurred when 11 of 23 schools fell below the pass rate on last year’s College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI). Dougherty County’s elementary schools’ scores took a tumble, with 11 of 14 county schools falling below the state’s passing rate of 60.
Five of the County’s 23 schools — Morningside, Alice Coachman, Northside and Turner elementary schools — in addition to Southside Middle, remain on the state’s list of chronically failing schools.
And that is one of Willis’ few regrets.
“When I came here, I was hoping we could get all of our schools off of the failing schools list,” he said. “Second, I am also sorry we have not been able to get a percentage of our parents to help us make progress in our schools. If we had the answer to how to change that, we wouldn’t be here. That really is a regret that I have — the inability to get that message to some of our parents.”
Asked if he would do it all again, Willis answered with one word: “Yes.”
“Overall, this has been a very good experience here,” he said. “I did not know when I agreed to come here that I would meet as many outstanding people who are already on the payroll. Now we also have some folks who really need to be doing something else, but as Homer wrote in Ulysses ‘I am a part of all I have ever met.’
“And that really is the message.”
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