Bill Miller paced anxiously about his office one recent morning, staring out the windows of Polk County Schools’ central facility in Columbus and keeping a close eye on work being done in the district bus garage to its rear.
Moments later, a worker passed by his office. Miller shouted his name and asked for an update on repairs being done elsewhere.
A few more minutes and Miller was off, papers in hand, walking up and down the halls of Stearns Education Building, stopping staff members and popping in and out of offices.
As he enters the final week of his tenure as Polk County Schools superintendent, his retirement effective July 31 announced earlier this year, Miller is staying busy, determined to leave the best possible situation for incoming superintendent Aaron Greene. And, perhaps, to delay thinking about the end of his more than 30-year official association with the school system in which he has spent the majority of his life.
“It’s bittersweet,” Miller admitted of his pending retirement. “I will really miss Polk County Schools and everything about it. The start of the new year and fall sports and Christmas and graduation, especially. It’s really bittersweet to me. I still believe I made the right decision. It’s time for somebody else to lead this organization, I’ve got family things I need to do. I’ve had a great thirty years, but it’s time for somebody else.
“I still feel like I made the right decision for me and for the school system, but at the same time, I’m not one of those people counting the minutes until I retire. I will really miss it.”
I think he is going to become one of the greatest superintendents the state of North Carolina has seen. Polk County Board of Education chairman Geoffrey Tennant, 2004
Bill Miller never planned on being in charge of Polk County Schools.
Miller left one alma mater, Wingate University, where he helped coach men’s basketball, to return to another, joining the faculty at Tryon High School as a social studies teacher and head basketball coach. The return home seemed a natural fit, and Miller envisioned a long career doing what he loved.
He got the long career. He found a new calling in the process.
“All I ever wanted to be was a coach and teacher,” Miller said. “That was my goal and that’s what I wanted to do. I never really envisioned this. In my case, I don’t know there ever really was a goal or a thing to be the superintendent.
“I felt much like (former Polk superintendent) Susan McHugh before me did. We’re from here, we’re part of the place, versus people come and stay here for two or three years and go and have another superintendent and go through twenty superintendents. I thought I could do my part and help out and no matter how bad I was, I’d be better than that.
“Certainly, when I first started coaching basketball at Tryon High, I never thought about being a superintendent, that’s for sure.”
Perhaps coming to the job for the right reasons, for love of county and love of students, helped Miller do it so well. Polk County Board of Education chairman Geoffrey Tennant predicted as much in Miller’s first week on the job – “I think he is going to become one of the greatest superintendents the state of North Carolina has seen,” Tennant told the Times-News.
But the public-facing accomplishments of Miller’s tenure – the opening of Polk County Middle School, state and national recognition for the district and its schools and many more – aren’t the details of which he is most proud. It’s the relationships, the people, the health of the heart of the district that makes Miller smile.
“Without question that we are a student-centered school system and a student-centered culture,” Miller said of the achievements he most cherishes. “Hopefully I’ve had some little small part in that and that’s by far the thing I’m most proud of.
“The second thing is that we are community-based schools. We could not possibly do what we do for students here without the community support that we have. I really feel like we’re an all-in kind of community for students. That shows in so many organizations and so many ways.”
Tennant, who envisioned the bright future for Miller, has been a constant presence not only during the superintendent’s tenure, but much of his life; the board chairman was part of the faculty at Tryon High when Miller first walked through its doors as a ninth grader. Miller still refers to him as “Mr. Tennant” even in casual conversation, and their relationship is as unique a one as likely can be found anywhere between superintendent and school board chair.
“It’s very, very unusual, and if you go around the state, our school board in general is very unusual,” Miller said. “I’ve never, ever heard a political discussion in our school board meetings, in public or in executive session. All you ever hear people talk about is policy, programs, things for our students, how to make our schools better. And I think Mr. Tennant is partly to credit for that.
“We certainly have a great relationship. I have tremendous respect for him. . . If you look at what’s going on in America now, he’s the oddball out, because it’s all about what all is good for me in America right now, and he’s the opposite. I have tremendous respect for him, hopefully he has some for me and we’ve had a great run. I don’t even know how to explain to people what all he has done for the schools and students and people in this community. Many times he does things for people and they don’t even know he’s done it. He’s a special cat.”
Tennant and the school board will now work with Greene to continue to keep Polk County Schools growing and thriving. Miller also plans to remain involved in education, and while he hopes to eventually do so in Polk County, it may not be soon.
“In some sense, for a little while, that would be unfair to Mr. Greene,” Miller said. “I think I need to stay out of sight, out of mind for some amount of time to be fair. But am I willing to do whatever? I certainly am. If they need anything, I’ll come running. I certainly plan on being at ball games and doing those things around but at the same time, I’m staying out of the way.
“I’m going to go back to work part-time in some school business around the state and be involved in some things. I hope I’m going to have a way to continue to contribute to public education in North Carolina. I’m looking forward to that. It certainly won’t be back working 70 to 80 hours a week like I was, but I’m hoping to find my voice and my place in a way that I can I contribute in our state and I’m looking forward to that.”
As he looks to find that voice, Miller already has some thoughts about the state of public education in North Carolina, especially two key issues:
* Teacher pay: “I do not believe, from my experience in life, that North Carolinians want the teachers of the children in this state to be paid number 49 of 50 states. I don’t believe that North Carolinians want that. I believe that the citizens of our state are starting to step up and say to their elected officials that we don’t expect to be in the top ten, but we don’t want to be 49th. We don’t want our teachers treated like this.”
* School choice and private/charter schools: “I have concerns about what I see as the segregation of North Carolina schools socioeconomically as caused by all of this choice. Only time will tell how all of that plays out. I certainly, on one hand, understand that parents have feelings that they should get to send their child to school where they want and where they think is best for their child. I understand that completely. But at the same time, I don’t understand how democracy is going to work when people are divided up into socioeconomic groups that don’t talk to each other and don’t work with each other. I don’t see how that’s going to work.”
Miller expects his final week to be a quiet one. He may pay one more visit to each school. He’ll continue to worry about the bus garage and a thousand other things.
And he’ll count his blessings along the way.
“It’s been so rewarding to me to be part of the school system and the community where I grew up,” Miller said. “Most people probably don’t think like that, but in my case, it has just been wonderful to be at least somewhat of a contributor to a place that has been very beneficial and supportive of me.”