Profile

Writing Prolifically, Acting Progressively

by Jay P. Goldman

From a comfortable perch overlooking Lake Champlain, Bill Mathis may just be the most prolific writer in the superintendent ranks today.

In 23½ years as superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vt., Mathis has built an estimable paper trail—research articles and book chapters, policy analyses and op-ed commentaries that he’s composed on sundry aspects of public schooling that together require eight single-spaced pages to simply list.

But Mathis is anything but a bookish academic, churning out footnoted scholarly papers that line the dusty stacks in research libraries. He’s actually an in-the-trenches combatant for everything good about America’s public education system, its democratic values and equal opportunities for all children. His writings reflect those themes more than anything else.

An educator for 40 years, he’s probably best known for bringing suit in 1997 against Vermont’s school funding system and earlier this year against the federal government for its failure to adequately fund No Child Left Behind.

In the NCLB case, Rutland Northeast became the only rural school district to join the lawsuit filed in April by the National Education Association. Mathis says he convinced his governing board to join as a plaintiff because of the “perversity” of a federal system that sanctioned schools on the basis of poverty, yet failed to consider the size of challenges a school must overcome or provide the financial support to meet the challenges.

The highly publicized legal tests have given Mathis a raised profile (“He’s noticed in the Post Office now,” recounts one Rutland friend), but the experiences in the limelight have done little to uproot the low-key, steady-as-he-goes manner that some say stems from his eastern Tennessee beginnings.

On his school district front, the superintendent is well-respected for establishing a wide array of educational program offerings that are designed to meet students’ diverse learning styles. By his count, the district provides 30 routes to a high school diploma. “He has a marvelous sensibility about what works for kids,” says Sid Glassner, a school board member who in 2000 co-founded with Mathis the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.

As an articulate spokesman for a liberal, humanistic approach to schooling, Mathis has few peers, says Doug Racine, a former state senator and lieutenant governor. “He would bring (to the state legislature) good information and good research and move beyond the rhetoric and biases to focus on the facts,” Racine says.

Mathis came to school administration through a less common route. His formal education and training was mostly in hard empirical research, and he spent most of his career prior to the superintendency conducting institutional and instructional studies. During a nine-year stretch with the New Jersey Department of Education, he directed the state’s educational assessment program and evaluated the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system.

“Not only was I blessed with daily practical applications, philosophical and political perspectives were conscious parts of my decision making,” Mathis says. “I was also able to scrutinize research claims by various partisans with a sharper eye. This has been a great advantage.”

One of four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year award in 2004, Mathis hopes his legacy will include a new generation of sharp-minded educational leaders fully capable of asking and answering the tough questions that will confront public education. For nearly two decades, he has taught the educational finance course to graduate students at the University of Vermont.

“These are troubled and difficult times. They call for us to step forward in our leadership roles unlike any time in the past,” says Mathis. “Particularly now when public schools are threatened, we need to ensure that democracy and equality are the prime values of our education system.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org


BIO STATS: Bill Mathis

Currently: superintendent, Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, Brandon, Vt.

Previously: deputy assistant commissioner, New Jersey Department of Education

Age: 62

Greatest influence on professional career: A young professor at the University of Tennessee named Ernie Austin who taught educational philosophy. He started my thinking in a broader way about educational issues and purposes. Today this is the very center of my work.

Best professional day: I’ve had many blessings. Winning the Supreme Court decision on state funding made me ecstatic. I got greater personal satisfaction, however, from a local kid who got a job and didn’t get arrested.

Books at bedside: Sacred Ground by Carl Glickman; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Never Give In! by Winston Churchill; and The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

Biggest blooper: Listening to my lawyer! There was a hot, emotional issue and my lawyer told me to tell the television folks “no comment.” That did not play well on the news. Sometimes leadership requires you to step out from the cautious and self-protective roles that lawyers always advise.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: The updates on NCLB, federal funding and Capitol Hill doings. A big thanks to Nick Penning and Bruce Hunter.