BEAUFORT - As the year draws to a close, so does the 39-year education career of Superintendent Mat Bottoms.
The man who started teaching in the county as a band and music director will have his curtain call as the school system’s top leader Tuesday.
Most of his 61-year life has been focused on education, and it’s evident in the many lives he’s touched. A number of former students now teach in the school system, probably one of the highest compliments an educator can receive.
“I remember all of my students. To me, they are all my kids. There are many teachers that were my kids,” Mr. Bottoms said. “When I was principal at Croatan (High School), I had several teachers working for me who I had taught in school.”
For him, all aspects of education can be summarized in one word — relationships.
“When you look in a classroom, you see people. In business or in education, it is about building relationships,” he said. “When you ask teenagers to come out in July and August and sweat and work their tails off in a band camp, they won’t come back unless you have built relationships. As a principal at Croatan, it was about relationships. As superintendent, it was still about relationships.”
With that said, when asked what his favorite memory will be of his years in education, he responded, “It’s the people that I’ve met. I remember all of them, especially the kids. That’s because they touched me.”
One of the biggest tests of his relationships with employees and the community came when he was faced with $15 million in damage to school buildings following Hurricane Florence in September 2018.
He was out visiting school campuses, employees and families of students as soon as he could safely get his vehicle on the road. Thanks to his leadership and bringing in moisture remediation teams within days of the storm’s passing, the school system was able to open in 15 days, while surrounding districts were closed much longer.
More than the concern for the buildings, however, was his concern for the many employees and families who lost their homes and belongings.
When asked about his experiences during that time, he quietly responded, “I can’t talk about it. It was tough,” as his eyes filled with tears.
He praised the “outstanding” teachers, principals, central office staff and employees for helping during that tough time.
He said it’s because of them the county school system has become one of the top districts in the state.
“Everyone in this school system is focused on educating kids,” he said. “The entire system understands we are all about kids.”
It’s his deep love for students and education, along with the political climate, that helped him make the decision to retire, according to Mr. Bottoms.
“Over the past six to eight months it became apparent it was probably time for me to retire. I’m really laser focused on what I want to do and sometimes the politics makes it difficult. We’re talking about kids’ futures here. I’m not sure there was one thing that was the deciding factor, but I felt I needed to go a different direction,” he said.
“If my abilities are limiting kids, it’s time for someone new. This job is too important. Hopefully they get someone who can bring in a new perspective and keep us on track.”
Some of his concerns locally include the switch from nonpartisan to partisan school board elections.
“It’s been a factor in my decision. I was here when we were partisan, then switched to nonpartisan, now back to partisan. I think the partisan politics does have an impact in the classroom,” he said.
“It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. I’m not trying to make a political statement or make it a party issue. I just think when a majority of voters decided we should go to nonpartisan elections (via a referendum), it should be up to the voters to make that change. That decision (to switch back to partisan elections) was taken out of the voters’ hands. That change should be put before the voters to make.”
At the state level, Mr. Bottoms also had several concerns.
“I feel like they’re (legislators) overreaching into the classroom. Several years ago they set standards for us to use. Now, they are giving us the standards, the curriculum and the materials. They’re taking away the freedoms of the teachers to teach,” he said.
“There is also an over emphasis on testing. We need to hold kids accountable, but the testing has gotten excessive. I agree the use of testing is critical to improve performance, but it’s become an obsession with testing. When it’s an obsession, it’s detrimental to our teaching. I’ve heard politicians talk about doing away with the testing burden, but they do away with one thing and add another.”
Another concern for Mr. Bottoms is the increase in unfunded state mandates that burden local governments and taxpayers.
“The state imposes a lot of costs that have to be absorbed by the local government,” he said. “The state passes down costs to county taxpayers and it makes it difficult on our local government, so they have to cut local funding. That means we have to cut teachers to keep up with the state mandates.”
He equates cutting teachers to losing the horsepower in a racecar.
“If you’re driving a racecar, it’s all about the horsepower. In education, our horsepower is people. When we have to cut people, it slows down our horsepower,” he said. “Our class sizes used to be the envy of surrounding counties, now we’re comparable.”
As for what Mr. Bottoms sees as the future challenges in education, much is related to finances.
“The amount of money we are now paying for retirement and health care for our employees is staggering,” he said. “When there’s an increase in retirement or health care benefits, we have 82 locally paid teachers that our local government matches with the state. Right now we have a half million dollars per year (locally) that goes to retirement and health care. That equates to 12 teaching positions per year.”
As for what the future holds for Mr. Bottoms, he’s keeping his cards close to his chest, although he has some ideas.
“I’m going to be busy. I’d like to open a small business, but I’m still debating what that will look like,” he said. “I’ve had a few offers, but haven’t made my decisions yet.”
Mr. Bottoms said he has held a contractor’s license for years and loves to build and work with wood.
“I’ve designed and built every home we’ve lived in,” he said. “I’ve always loved working with wood. I love building furniture.”
One thing he does not see in his immediate future is involvement in politics.
“I’ve never seen myself as a politician,” he said. “I haven’t thought about that at all. I’m not looking to register for a school board race or anything like that.”
He also plans to spend more time playing bass guitar.
“I still enjoy music,” he noted.
Mr. Bottoms looks forward to spending more time with his wife Gail, and his two grown children, Hayden, who lives in Iowa, and Tyler, who lives in Greenville.
Born in Wilson, Mr. Bottoms entered the education field because of his love of music.
“I got started in the band playing trumpet as a kid and found I was pretty good at it and enjoyed it. I knew early on I wanted to be a band director,” he said.
He pursued his love by majoring in music education at East Carolina University. He got his first teaching job as music and band director at Newport Elementary and White Oak Elementary schools in January 1981. At the end of that school year, he was asked to take over as band director at Morehead City Middle School and West Carteret High School.
During that time, he received his master’s degree in administration from ECU. He remained a band director until January 1995, when he became assistant principal of WCHS. He later became athletic director at the school as well.
He was named principal of CHS in 1998, the year the school opened. He was picked as assistant superintendent of curriculum in 2010 and named superintendent in July 2017.
His entire career has been spent in Carteret County, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This community and this school system are special,” he said. “It’s been absolutely one of the highlights of my life that parents trusted me to teach their kids to play horns, then later on educate them in buildings that I oversaw. Getting to raise my children here was just icing on the cake.”
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.