By Collin Brooks
Opportunity and chance are two things that outgoing Johnson City Schools Superintendent Dr. Richard Bales said allowed him to make his dreams into reality.
“Sometimes all people need is for someone to give them a chance,” he said. “It’s powerful for someone to believe in you. It was great and I look back on it and it is like I dreamed that part of my life, it was like utopia, it really was.”
That belief helped open the door to other opportunities, including one in Central Office, before he became the superintendent 12 years ago. But it was the support of the staff and teachers that helped him to succeed.
“Teachers are why I think I ended up in this job, because they really believed in me” Bales said. “At that particular time in the superintendency, I think all the teachers really wanted and needed was someone to believe in them.”
He said that then Superintendent Dr. Dan Russell took a chance on him and provided him with his first opportunity to become an administrator when he hired him at Woodland Elementary in 1997.
Russell hired Bales at Woodland, where Russell’s wife, Patsy, was a teacher.
“It was interesting to be the principal of where the superintendent’s wife works,” Bales said through a smile. “I didn’t know that ahead of time, but it was not a factor at all, we never talked business.”
Bales grew up wanting to be a teacher, even leading imaginary classroom play sessions as he grew up on a farm with his four siblings and parents in Greene County. But things weren’t always as pleasurable for Bales and his family.
Bales grew up in what he described as poor, but things worsened when he was 6 years old and his father fell while hanging tobacco and broke his neck. From then on, his father was paralyzed and it was up to the family to take care of him.
Bales graduated from West Greene High School and then graduated from Tusculum College, becoming the first of his family to attend college — neither of his parents graduated from high school. But he said they still harped on his one guaranteed ticket to achieve great things in life, education.
“I am a living example that you can get out of poverty,” Bales said. “I always remember the value that my parents taught me of an education and having an extensive one. You really can get out and the ticket is education.”
His path started when he was 14 years old, when he picked up a job at the local grocery store, where he became known as “Richie”. Almost 40 years later, Dr. Bales will be retiring as the Johnson City Schools’ Superintendent.
During his tenure, Bales said that he always tried to look at the superintendents seat as not his own, but the office for which he works, conferring with people inside of Central Office when it was time to make tough decisions.
He noted that he has taken great pride in the teachers and administrators that have been hired over his tenure.
“It probably won’t be my legacy, but in my mind, it’s my legacy,” he said. “That will probably be my lasting legacy of those working with kids and we have been able to hire some great leaders.”
Bales said that he hired six principals during his first year. One of those was Dr. Steve Barnett, who will take over the seat as superintendent on July 1.
“I think he will do really well and the community and teachers will support him,” Bales said.
Bales said that he’s had many discussions with Barnett since he was announced as his successor but he said there is one big thing he has advised the incoming superintendent to do.
“A lot of people do a lot of talking and you have to do a lot of listening and that’s really important, but at the end of the day, you have to listen to yourself,” Bales said. “And what do you think at the end of day? Given all that you’ve heard and listened to. But be true to yourself and I think you have to listen to yourself.”
That philosophy was developed at the classroom level, in which Bales spent ten years as an elementary teacher in the Greeneville City School System. He said that working for two good principals at that level, helped him develop his current methods.
But he admitted that everything hasn’t always been perfect during his time.
Most difficult times for him, came when he had to make difficult decisions about adults who are employed. Whether they’ve made a bad choice or they’ve done something that you can’t fix or help with.
“Those are really difficult decisions, because most people are really nice people, but we all mess up,” Bales said. “Those conversations, as an administrator, take something out of you, I think.”
He said early on, during his time as principal, those conversations would make him almost sick to his stomach, but that became easier with time.
“What I’ve always tried to do is treat people with dignity and respect, even if it’s a decision that they’re not going to want to hear,” he said. “But most of the time it has been as okay as it can be.”
Bales was also a little bit critical about how he treated the International Baccalaureate Program at Science Hill, as he feels like he could market it better through the years.
He also said that he wished he could have gotten the learning plan — which reconfigured the grades at the different schools and moved 9th grade to the Science Hill campus — done quicker.
Dealing with three funding bodies — with the state and city and county commissions — has also been an interesting obstacle for Bales.
“There are going to be times where there are just going to be gnashing of teeth and people get upset and they get bothered, but eventually they come to some consensus, sometimes I wanted to rush that along and it can be very frustrating, but it can also be somewhat of a necessity, that there is checks and balances with your funding body.”
Besides the classroom success that has been achieved during his time, one project he is proud of is that the system was able to build Fairmont on its current site, while allowing students to continue to go to school there, something he called very rare. Even rarer though, is the enjoyment he felt during his tenure at the top.
“If I could have dreamed to have the perfect situation, where people support me and they support students. I couldn’t have picked a better place. We argue some with the commission and some of that, but it’s all in the name of what is best for kids…I couldn’t have dreamed up a situation that could have been any better, any better, than here. We have been blessed.”