By MARINA WATERS
Bill Flanary first crossed the Washington County line 36 years ago when he moved here from Nashville to teach at David Crockett High School. Now, he’s sitting in the big chair in the big office as the Director of Schools of Washington County.
It’s not completely official yet with the Washington County Board of Education voting to enter contract negotiations with Flanary and the BOE chairman earlier this month. But Flanary seems rather comfortable in the new position and, as always, in the county he’s called home since he first became the agriculture teacher at Crockett.
“I had two job offers; one in Bath County, Kentucky, the other in Jonesborough, Tennessee,” Flanary recalled. “I picked Jonesborough because I didn’t want to fool with getting a Kentucky driver’s license. I threw a suit case in my pick up truck and drove up here on a Tuesday and started work on a Thursday. That was 36 years ago.”
After teaching at Crockett, he became the vocational director and later moved into a role as the assistant superintendent and high school supervisor until May of 2018 when the board moved to place Flanary as the Interim Director of Schools. But if you were to ask Flanary what made him want to become a director of schools, he’d ponder — as he did in his interview with the Herald & Tribune — on if it was more of a want or a calling to the position.
“I don’t know that it’s a want,” Flanary said. “The best job I ever had was teaching. I still miss it. Teaching is the best job there is and teaching agriculture is the best job there is in teaching. Sometimes I think I was crazy to ever leave the classroom. I don’t know that you want this job. It’s just something you feel like you’ve prepared to do, your career arc is pointed in this direction. When the opportunity presents itself to lead, to help people and to assist on this scale, you feel like you need to take the chance.
“I don’t want to go later in life and say, ‘I should have tried that’ and turned it down. I don’t want to live with regret. So far it’s been good.”
But the plans for his future don’t center around just sitting at the helm of the table with BOE members on Thursday nights; Flanary’s got big plans for the Washington County School System — and that first plan centers around literacy.
“Going back to my full-time teaching days, it struck me, ninth graders coming to me there at Crockett who couldn’t read or write,” Flanary said. “I’m sure that happens in high schools all across this country and maybe all around the world. How do you get to the ninth grade and you can’t read or write? How does that happen? The time that I have as director, I want to address that. I want to focus on Pre-K through third grade literacy.”
To up literacy in the county school system, Flanary said he’s been doing his homework on the matter, reading up on ways to improve literacy in young students and listening and picking the brains of elementary education administrators.
“The research has changed I’m finding,” Flanary said. “We used to say that if a kid is reading anything, if they were just reading the back of a cereal box, that’s enough. It’s just not. They need to be reading for understanding. That’s been the missing piece of literacy for so long.
How can teachers support that? There was a question that was asked of me that I can’t get out of my mind: who is doing most of the thinking in the classroom? If it’s the teacher, we’re doing something wrong. Kids need to be doing most of the thinking in the classroom. We don’t need to be doing so much teaching as we do asking the right questions. This is the approach I want to take.”
It’s not just Pre-K through third graders he’s considering in his goals, however; Flanary added that he also wants to concentrate on making the Washington County School system a “job generator.”
For Flanary, that means offering options for all students after high school and showing younger students what career options they have in the future.
“It is true that when I started, we used to say, ‘A college education isn’t for everybody.’ I haven’t said that in years,” Flanary said. “If you have any opportunity or aptitude for a post secondary experience, you need to go. If it’s a four-year school, if it’s Ivy League, if it’s a one-semester certificate program at TCAT (Tennessee College for Applied Technology), whatever’s right for you. We need to support those kids and whatever is next in their lives.
“It’s not just for high school. If you ask a typical seventh grader what they want to do for a living — doctor, lawyer, actor. Why? That’s our fault. That’s all they know. We need to show them what you can do for a living and make a good living right here in the Tri-Cities. We need to have a better relationship with business and industry. I want to foster that. I want businesses to know they have a seat at the table with Washington County Schools.”
Flanary also added that he wants to work on organization within the highest tier of the school system, which includes streamlining responsibilities within his office.
As if managing the school system weren’t enough, a director also works closely with his or her nine bosses on the school board as well as the county commission through committee meetings, workshops and requests and presentations to the commission. Though it could be seen as a daunting part of the role, Flanary said it’s an easy part of the job.
“I work for the board of education,” Flanary said. “I will work with the county commission because they’re the funding body. We have got to have that. We run on cash. But I will never forget who I work for and who signs my paycheck — and who I am contracted to.
“Mayor Grandy and I have fostered a very good relationship early on. A lot of (the commissioners) I have known for three plus decades. I work for the board of education. I take my cues from them. That’s an easy part of this job.”
Next on Flanary’s plate will be organizing the upcoming Boones Creek School which is slated to be open in August of 2019. Flanary said furniture, bus routes, hiring administrators and teachers for the school, and considering redistricting are all on the to do list for the school. Not to mention the Jonesborough School project discussion, which will continue in a joint meeting with school and county officials later this month.
“I’m not discouraged (by the Jonesborough School project holdups). This board and this commission will come to an agreement,” Flanary said. “It was a really good move (to chose the latest design plan). Like the mayor said, it’s a good starting place. It gets the conversation moving again. We’re not at a stalemate now.
“I’m encouraged by what’s happened so far and I look forward to seeing what happens even in the next few days. We’re going to bring something out of the ground at Jonesborough like we did in Boones Creek.”
Until then, there’s still work to be done. And for Flanary, that work serves as fuel to keep going, no matter what comes across his new desk in his new digs.
“One attractive thing about it is you never get bored. Every day is different. And I’ve got a great staff. I want to emphasize that. There’s not a better system-wide staff in the state of Tennessee I don’t believe,” Flanary said. “You walk into this school system that has great people already in place. It’s been satisfying to work with these folks.
“I never saw myself working 12 -14 hour days, but I find myself looking at the clock and it’s 7 p.m. and you haven’t even eaten lunch,” Flanary said. “You still feel, energized. I’m not sure if energized is the right word, but you have energy about you. You’re not exhausted or bored. You just want to get on to the next thing.”