Editors note: The printed version of this story ran with an error, saying Steve Barnett will replace Dr. Richard Bales on June 31, that has been corrected to say June 30.
By Collin Brooks
Besides the handshakes, hugs, mild tears and congratulatory remarks from students and teachers at Towne Acres on March 23, it was business as usual for Principal Dr. Steve Barnett.
The fact that just 24 hours before, he was unanimously selected as Johnson City’s new Superintendent was an afterthought. A surprisingly well-rested Barnett — who will replace current Superintendent Dr. Richard Bales when his retirement is effective on June 30 — was still spending his day directing students, worrying about refinishing the playground equipment and picking up small specs of trash from the school grounds before he sat down for an interview with The News & Neighbor on Friday.
On his face though, was a smile that glistened with joy and a bit of excitement at a new opportunity.
“I love my job and my goal is to love the new job like I do this one,” he said, not holding back his smile. “I want to bring a lot of positiveness to the position, because I think people tend to feed off the style of their leader.
“I think it’s more powerful when people don’t want to disappoint you than it is to be afraid of you.”
Leadership skills like those are the reason that the Johnson City Board of Education members were comfortable selecting Barnett to be the next leader of the school system.
“He is highly respected and he is a really strong leader, which I think we were all interested in having for our next superintendent,” Johnson City Board of Education Chairman Tim Belisle said. “He has done a fantastic job with Towne Acres and he is highly respected.”
From students to staff, Towne Acres has taken the form of Barnett, who is the school’s 4th principal in it’s 50 years. It won’t be easy for Barnett or his disciples to part ways, but he will be more worried about that at the end of the school year.
“Everyday here is important,” he said. “I need to make sure that I don’t get in the way of that. I don’t want it to be a distraction to the kids or the teachers or anyone else, we still have a lot of work to do.”
He sums that up with simple math, saying that they only have 180 days inside of the school, which is less than the 365 days in a year.
As the fifth of 12 children, school was one of Barnett’s favorite places growing up. The only educator in his family, besides his mother, school was his crutch to help him through some of his family’s tough economic times during his later elementary years in the mid to late 1970s.
“I looked around and school was one of the best parts of my day,” he said through a smile. “I loved to play sports and I loved all of those things as a child and I loved school and I always enjoyed seeing people progress and grow. So that let me know at an early age that I wanted to teach.”
That was instilled in him by his fourth grade teacher Mrs. Buck at Happy Valley Elementary School, who one day may have altered Barnett’s path with just a few simple words after reviewing one of his assignments.
“She leaned over my shoulder and said, ‘You’re going to college kid.’
“I said thanks, but really it had a big impact on my life,” he said.
Ironically, during his first year as principal at Towne Acres 12 years ago, Barnett was going through a scrapbook from the school’s first year in 1966 and he came across a picture of Mrs. Buck. Those memories came flooding back to him and it re-enforced one of his mottos of leaving a lasting legacy. He shares that with his teachers almost every day.
“(Former students) will talk about you when they are 35 years old and do you want to be the teacher that they have forgotten?” he said. “Or do you want to be the teacher that is an interesting story because of your ineffectiveness? Or do you want to be the teacher where people say, ‘Wow, that lady or gentleman really impacted my life wonderfully.’”
Lessons like that are things that he tries to remind his teachers, and providing them support from the district’s highest office will be something that he will do so they will have the things they need to leave those lasting legacies with their students.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult and how complex the job of being a teacher is and how much support they need,” he said.
Barnett mentioned that is something in the current central office and school board has given their students.
“Dr. Bales has done a wonderful job and I’d like to continue the support that the teachers feel they have from the school board, which is great, and from central office,” he said. “Our central office is strong and structured and they support what is important to children in the classroom. Keeping them safe, keeping them learning and moving forward in a climate that is positive and not too stressful.”
And while he has an idea of the tools it will take, he will rely on friends, like Bales and Greeneville City Schools Superintendent Jeff Moorehouse to help him learn the transition. Both were principals at schools until they had the opportunity to become superintendents.
He has also worked on the Tennessee Principals Association Board with Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton. While they only worked together briefly, that familiarity could be helpful for the two systems.
Barnett said that he received a few congratulatory text messages and phone calls from current superintendents welcoming him to the club. But there were two things that really made him pause, reflect and be thankful for his selection.
“That I was on all seven ballots — that is such a vote of confidence. I want to make sure that I do the very best job for the schools and the school board. Because they’ve trusted me I just don’t want to disappoint,” he said.“The other thing was a text from my 16-year old, that he sent his mom about his dad. And I thought that was pretty cool. Those two things, I sat down and thought, this is pretty amazing.”
Barnett can officially accept the position after the April 3 board meeting, where the board will vote on the contract specifics they have laid out. He will be offered a 3-year contract with a base salary of $130,000. He will also received a $2,000 supplement toward retirement and a car allowance of $6,000. There will be 20 vacation days included, along with 20 vacation days to carry over. He will also have an amount for professional growth and they will cover his professional liability and professional growth expenses. He will also receives $1,000 for a professional library.
All of those things were far from Barnett’s mind as he reflected on his newest journey. With the schools being one of his favorite places to be as a child, he hopes the mentality that he cherished at Towne Acres is something that the entire system will continue to adopt.
“I hope I left a culture and a climate that lends itself to being an amazing place for kids to come to school,” he said. “I hope they will continue to run toward the front door in the morning when they are coming in.”