As the county board of education begins the search for a new school superintendent to replace Mat Bottoms who retired at the end of last year, they should take stock of his skills and success in developing strong relations with the county’s students, their parents and business community.
It is often said that following a successful career is difficult, using such terms as “seat to fill” or “shoes to fill.” In the case of Mr. Bottoms, considering his success as a brand director, it will be a large baton to swing for his successor.
It seems counterintuitive that a band director would have the skills for the job of school superintendent - overseeing 18 schools, approximately 8,200 students, 1,020 employees and a $91 million budget.
Many would think the skills for this job would initiate in the world of business and high finance. But for Mr. Bottoms it started with a music conductor’s baton.
A committed teacher, Mr. Bottoms began his career in the county’s school system 39 years ago as a music and band director.
In 1981 he took leadership of the West Carteret High School Marching Patriots, guiding hundreds of students as they learned to march in step, performing intricate maneuvers while making enjoyable music with a variety of instruments.
Considering that the challenge of getting the students to pay attention to instructions is a unique skill, but then to turn those instructions, using a baton and a variety of looks and gestures, into a highly respected and very competitive band program, says volumes about leadership style.
Mr. Bottoms’ expertise went beyond just guiding students; he had to convince his school, the band parents and business leaders to get on board with the program, with tens of thousands of dollars needed for uniforms, instruments and large trucks and vans for transportation of these items.
He did this by creating strong relationships with his students and the community at large.
Mr. Bottoms noted the importance of building relationships to make successful programs. “When you look in a classroom you see people. In business or in education it is about building relationships.” It was this focus on the people, students and parents, that was so important in WCHS band’s success. “When you ask teenagers to come out in July and August and sweat their tails off in a band camp, they won’t come back unless you have built relationship.”
After 14 years as a band director Mr. Bottoms continued to hone his leadership skills, first as an assistant principal, then a high school principal and eventually moving to the county school system’s central office where he became school superintendent.
Throughout his educational career Mr. Bottoms was noted for his empathy and interest in all facets of his job. During the past two years as superintendent teachers and parents spoke often about his active participation in meetings and school activities, participation that exhibited a passion for his community and job.
That passion was highlighted during Hurricane Florence. As the county suffered 36 hours of hurricane-force winds and relentless rains, Mr. Bottoms toured all of the county school facilities, and as the storm began to abate he was on the phone, calling contractors to line up schedules for remediation.
The result of this commitment and exposure to danger was a school system which was back in operation within 15 days despite significant damage to county school buildings that amounted to more than $15 million.
Nearby counties did not fare nearly as well, with many of those schools remaining closed for months.
As the county school board reviews the applications for the county’s new school superintendent they should review Mr. Bottoms’ successful career as teacher and administrator and above all, his leadership.
The board of education should identify those attributes that will continue a county school program that is recognized as one of the top 10 in the state and a high school program ranked second in the state.
This will be a tall order to be sure. His shoes will be hard to fill and passing the baton of success will be challenging. Mr. Bottoms has set the cadence and the tune that will require his replacement to have both talent to lead and a passion for people.