ALBEMARLE — Two years into Dr. Jeff James’ time at the head of Stanly County Schools, the superintendent has announced he is returning to his home county, Iredell, to take the superintendent role in their system.
James dealt with a number of high-profile challenges during his tenure in Stanly County: including a parent with an AR-15 at a bus stop, national media attention over cheerleaders holding a Trump flag, and providing education and child nutrition during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’ve maintained a home in Iredell County since 1985. I actually was born and raised there,” James told SCJ on the decision. With his wife in Iredell as her mother’s main caregiver, James has lived in Stanly during the week and with her on the weekends. “It’s certainly been a strain traveling.”
After going to Iredell County schools through high school, James went to UNC and started a career in the textile industry. In 2002, the industry saw hard times and started laying people off, including James, which is when he found his way into education.
“I had a great career in textiles that took me all over the world,” James said. But when he was laid off, someone from his church, a teacher, asked him to consider working in the schools because of his success working with the church’s youth.
After a visit to her class, an administrator asked him to apply for a job, and the rest is history. James did a lateral entry, which allowed him to teach while he pursued credentials. Over the next few years, he worked his way through a few teaching and administrative jobs as he earned various degrees, including a doctorate in education. The doctorate had a dual focus on leadership and cultural foundations.
James went to Montgomery County in 2013 to take a job as the assistant superintendent, and after five years, in March of 2018, he was hired to be Stanly County’s superintendent. Now, looking back on his time in Stanly County, he believes he’s achieved many of his goals.
“Absolutely,” James said on whether his time in Stanly was a success. “Stanly County has hit an all-time record in academics. When I got here, there were six D schools, very few schools were meeting or exceeding growth… Now we have one D school. We have about $14 million in grants and another $10 million in the process. Graduation rate is the highest it’s ever been in the history of the county.”
Another achievement in his time is reducing inefficiencies in how programs work across the district. “Transportation when I got here was 79% efficient. This year we’ll be at 96.8%. And anytime you improve efficiencies, you’re reducing the amount of local taxpayer dollars that have to be spent out.”
The school board has not picked a successor for James, but they are having a meeting April 22 to begin discussions. James said he will help however he can.
“I’m going to help them there. I have a vested interest in Stanly County. It’s not like I’m divorcing the county,” he said. “I’m very in love with Stanly. It is my second home, and I want to make sure the great things we started continue.”
James said there will be some challenges for the next superintendent though. The school buildings are all aging, and he said there is not enough tax revenue to do the kinds of renovations that are needed. James hopes there will be economic development in the area soon that will increase the tax base and allow them to build modern school buildings. He also said unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments make it difficult to maintain teacher positions.
“The state keeps pressing increasing insurance, increasing retirement, FICA, and as that gets pushed down to small rural counties, there’s just not enough tax dollars locally to sustain the current system with the employees it has,” James said. “So what’s happening is, through attrition, rural counties are seeing more and more workers not replaced after they retire.”
James will help find the new superintendent and to navigate the rest of this unusual school year, but then he will start next school year as the Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent.
“My phones been blown up by people upset that I’m leaving, but the bottom line is, at the end of the day, Iredell County is home.”
Things have changed in his home county though since he was a child. The main industry was textiles, with Mooresville’s economy being reliant on a denim dying factory.
“When I grew up in Iredell, it was almost identical to Stanly County — 60-70,000 residents,” James said. “Then textiles was replaced by NASCAR, and it sort of happened overnight.”
Now Iredell is a busy Charlotte suburb. There are 36 schools in Iredell-Statesville Schools and only 21 in Stanly. James says some people worry when there is a changing of the guard but he isn’t looking to overhaul the whole system as the new leader in Iredell. “My goal is to go in and continue the great work that’s already there.”
“I appreciate all the support in Stanly from the community. The community has been tremendous,” James said, saying he is hopeful for the county’s future. “The commissioners have been great to work with. We might not always agree, but they truly want what’s best for Stanly students and education system.”