Zen and the Arts of Bill's Philosophy: Rural School Superintendent William Mathis Truly Listens, Does His Homework and Stands Up against Conceived Inequities in the Federal Education Law

By Pascopella, Angela | District Administration, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Zen and the Arts of Bill's Philosophy: Rural School Superintendent William Mathis Truly Listens, Does His Homework and Stands Up against Conceived Inequities in the Federal Education Law


Pascopella, Angela, District Administration


Sitting in his one-story office in the town of Brandon, nestled among the Green Mountains of Vermont, William Mathis stares out his rain-splattered window as he contemplates education in the nation and his district, a few miles north of Rutland.

He's modest and quick to laugh, as well as pensive as he verbalizes--still with his native Tennessean accent--his soft spot for this liberal state and his 23-year tenure as superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. As the longest-serving superintendent in one location in the state, Mathis has much for which to be thankful.

He rattles off a list of blessings here: It has good people, good board of education members, and a strong sense of community ethos. He can't forget his penchant for skiing as well as meditation practice. Near his hometown in Goshen, he still plays hard on the slopes and takes daily walks with the dogs he rescued, Doofus and Hootch.

Mathis, who oversees 11 school boards in eight rural communities and makes $104,000 a year, also works hard. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist in 2003 and took the Vermont Superintendent of the Year award in 2002. He has written or presented about 150 national research papers, policy briefs and newspaper columns on such topics as assessment, school vouchers, education reform and special education. He often makes speeches across the nation about the purpose of public education, equality and government roles.

In the 1990s, Mathis pushed for financial equity in schools and served as a financial consultant in the case, Brigham v. state of Vermont, which found the state finance system unconstitutional. "We now have arguably the nation's most equitable funding system," Mathis says. "We spend at a high level and do it equitably. That's pretty good. Not many states can make that claim."

He consults for the Rural School and Community Trust on which he worked on funding systems for more than 10 states. And he holds a doctorate degree in educational foundations and policy studies.

He's pondering compiling a book, Zen and the Art of School Administration, which would touch upon how and when administrators should listen, speak, find humor, and stay calm in various situations.

Prior to serving in Vermont, Mathis was deputy assistant commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Education. He was a guidance counselor and school psychologist in Tennessee before serving in the Air Training Command in Texas. He also taught and did research at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

As Vermont follows the reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or No Child Left Behind, Mathis recently led his district to join other Vermont, Texas and Michigan districts and the National Education Association to sue U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings for requiring districts and states to comply with NCLB mandates without sufficient federal funds. DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION'S Angela Pascopella recently spoke with Mathis about rural schools and his beliefs on major educational issues.

DA: Describe your background, your family, which led you to be the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent.

Mathis: It goes back to my great grandfather, when he came back from the Civil War. The community was destroyed. Here is all the people wondering, 'How do we rebuild a community?' He said, 'Let's build a school.' And so they built the Seal-Mathis School. My grandfather taught in it, my father taught in it, my mother was a teacher, and so it sort of runs in the family. [I learned] this is how you build a community.

The unusual thing about my background is that I have a hard research background combined with philosophy. If we're dealing with some so-called "research study" from the Heritage Foundation or other partisan group, it's necessary to separate ideology from science. Sometimes they make grounded points and sometimes they don't. …

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