When a certain Hinesville law firm announced Dec. 7 it was no longer representing the Liberty County school system, it had what was likely an unintended side-effect.
That was keeping the word “interim” in place last week in the title for Dr. Franklin Perry, who has been serving as superintendent since June.
Perry, the school board’s only finalist for the job of running the 15-school district with more than 11,000 students, had yet to negotiate a contract with the school board to permanently replace his predecessor, Dr. Valya S. Lee. But superintendents don’t come cheap. Lee, who remains in Liberty County, was paid $190,000 annually, and received that as severance when she and the school board agreed to part ways a year early.
Meanwhile, Perry’s contract as an interim superintendent pays him $800 per day.
Despite the salary and high stakes that come with being the CEO of a county school system, the clarinet-playing son of a Baptist preacher said he doesn’t view himself as a “savior” of Liberty’s schools.
“I just don’t think an organization should be built around one person,” Perry said. “A lot of people give more credence to a superintendent than they do the people who work in the organization. I’m just one person. We’ve got 15 schools, and all those teachers are out there working hard, those principals are out there working hard and making decisions that affect children. This is not about me. It is more about how I can inspire, support and encourage those people than it is about me.”
Schools not broken
If Perry doesn’t like being viewed as a savior, perhaps it’s because he doesn’t think Liberty County’s schools need saving.
“I don’t think they’re broken,” he said. “They were not broken when I got here, they are not broken now. There are a lot of good and exciting things going on here. But there is room for improvement.”
Perry points to his time in business and politics — he owned a pair of car dealerships and served on a college board of trustees — with helping him understand the dynamics of a school system.
“In business, we’re more results oriented. You’ve got to be to survive,” he said. “That’s one of the things we hope to bring to work with us here. We have to be accountable, we have to perform and we have to take care of our customers; in this case, our children and parents.”
Those areas he thinks need improvement?
“Teacher morale, that was one area I noticed coming in,” Perry said. “And not just the morale of teachers, but the whole staff. I knew that needed some work.”
And, again, customer service.
“That’s not necessarily just in Liberty County, but in education as a whole,” Perry said. “In business, the customer is what you focus on. Well, we need improvement in being customer-service oriented as far as our children are concerned, their parents are concerned and the community is concerned.”
Perry said he also wants to focus on teamwork.
“When I got here there were too many situations where everybody was kind of going in their own direction,” he said. “My thing was to try to line everybody up, get everybody to focus on student achievement and provide a safe and orderly learning environment with highly qualified teachers and leaders.”
That desire to get everyone on the same page includes those beyond the system, he said.
“We need to improve our partnership with stakeholders,” Perry said. “The newspaper, the Chamber, civic groups. Everybody needs to be a part of, and feel good about, what we’re doing.”
Finally, “we need to operate like a professional organization to the point all the community believes we are serious about educating our children and we are accountable for the successes of our children,” Perry said.
Still, he said he knows Liberty’s public schools face the perception they’re not as good as those in districts in Bryan and Effingham.
“I can’t tell you why that is, but I can tell you I think we will change that,” he said. “You simply do it by performance. In three years, I will say to any parent, if you can find a better district than Liberty County, I will say ‘take your child there.’ We are going to take care of our children, we are going to have a high performing school district. This is where parents are going to want to be. I believe that, and we are going to work toward that. But to do that, we have to take care of business.”
To do that, the district has to do its best to educate all its children, Perry said, while making sure its employees feel valued.
“You have to take care of everybody,” he said. “The people who are satisfied usually don’t tell anybody, but the people who are dissatisfied will tell everybody they see. That doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job overall, but it does mean there are some people that are not being taken care of and they tend to voice that opinion.”
Some also provide plenty of unsolicited advice in forums such as the Courier’s Sound Off, which Perry said he reads.
That wasn’t always the case. Perry was involved in a controversial issue while in Sumter County, and a local newspaper’s call-in line started to weigh heavy on him.
“When I was superintendent in Americus, one of the things I had to do was merge two high schools,” he said. “One was rural, one was in the city. One was predominately white, the other one was basically all black. But the board indicated to me that’s what they wanted to do, and I saw the benefit, so I did what was assigned to me to do.”
He said the decision upset many in the community, and the issue was widely discussed by callers to the Americus Times-Recorder.
“You can imagine what all was said, and really and truly, it got to where it was affecting me to the point my wife said, ‘why do you read that?’”
Perry said he stopped reading that particular forum for a time, but is convinced such avenues are actually healthy.
“I don’t get upset with people for their opinions. I concentrate on what I know is right, ethical and within the law, and if it’s consistent with what my true belief is, and if I can do that, I can sleep pretty good at night,” he said. “If I had your job, I’d probably do it differently than you’re doing it. If you had my job, you’d probably do it differently. That’s just life. But I think people ought to be able to express themselves. I’ll look at what’s being said in Sound Off, and if there’s any truth to it, I like to make adjustments. If there’s not any truth I’ll keep doing what I was hired to do.”
Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories on the new superintendent.