Newsmaker of Year: Purser Was 'Right Person at Right Time'
Susan Purser smiles when she thinks about about the “three nevers” she always promised herself as a student at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.
She was never going to be a teacher. She was never going back to school after college, and she was going to move out of Mississippi the first chance she got and never go back.
“Those were my three big things,” she says. “And I violated all three of those, which has been a great thing.”
Teaching was something Purser chose “to fall back on” after a sorority sister encouraged her to pursue a teaching certificate with her.
“And I thought, ‘Eh, I don’t want to be a teacher, but something to fall back on might be a good idea,’” she says. “So I picked up some courses on the side. Ironically, [my sorority sister] did not.”
Back then, Purser couldn’t have imagined that her back-up plan would shape her life and define her ambitions over 41 years as an educator.
Behind Our Newsmaker Tradition
The Pilot’s annual tradition of picking a Newsmaker is now in its 15th year.
Past designees include N.C. Rep. Richard Morgan for 1997; U.S. Sen. John Edwards for 1998; former Pinehurst Inc. President Patrick Corso for 1999; Michael Holden, former chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, for 2000; Kelly Miller, CEO of Pine Needles and Mid Pines, for 2001; and Charles Frock, CEO of FirstHealth of the Carolinas, for 2002.
Dr. Patrick Russo, the predecessor of this year’s designee, was the Newsmaker for 2003, followed by lawyer and school board member Bruce Cunningham in 2004; Beth Kocher, chairwoman of the second U.S. Open at Pinehurst, in 2005; and N.C. Rep. (now former Rep.) Joe Boylan in 2006.
In 2007, instead of choosing a single Newsmaker, we designated “the Gadflies,” four individuals vociferously involved in controversies that had convulsed the county: Greg Zywocinski of Southern Pines, Ralph Redmond and Doug Middaugh of Pinehurst, and Elton Turner of Vass.
The Newsmaker for 2008 was football coach Chris Metzger of Pinecrest High School, and 2009’s choice was Carthage police officer Justin Garner, who put an end to the Pinelake massacre. Last year, we again went with a group: County Commissioners Larry Caddell, Nick Picerno and Jimmy Melton.
As usual, we emphasize that the Newsmaker choice is not intended as an honor or award, but rather as a designation of the person who had the greatest impact on news during the year.
— Steve Bouser, editor
After ushering in a new school year full of tumultuous change, Purser announced on the first day of school that she would retire as superintendent of the Moore County school system Dec. 31.
The decision was a surprise to many, but Purser said it was the right time for her to step down.
Today, as she begins that next step in her life, she leaves behind the career she initially never wanted with many memories, both good and bad, but all testaments to her abilities as an educational leader.
Purser also couldn’t have imagined back then that, at the close of her career, she would be leading a school system through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
She was still somewhat new to Moore County when the early warning signs of the crisis appeared in 2007. Purser was busy working to get voters behind a $54 million school bond referendum that would allow the system to build two new schools, help address capacity issues and implement water and sewer upgrades.
The referendum passed overwhelmingly, and Purser was celebrated for her ability to bolster community support. But it didn’t take long for the effects of the economic emergency to hit home. Since 2008, Purser has had to navigate the system through a storm of more than $10 million in state funding shortfalls and unprecedented budget cuts, all the while trying to ensure Moore County students felt as little impact as possible in the classroom.
Purser had to make tough decisions when deciding how to cut $8.2 million from the system’s budget for the the 2011-2012 year.
“We were being strapped with major reductions from the state level, so we had to make some choices: Either we’re going to eliminate a large number of personnel or we’ve got to find other places to make some reductions.”
Purser recommended that the Moore County Board of Education agree to close Academy Heights Elementary School and consolidate the county’s year-round program to Southern Pines.
Built in 1934 to serve African-American children of Taylortown and its surrounding areas, Academy Heights had reopened as a year-round elementary school in 1996. Purser says the program was originally established there to help ease overcrowding in the old Pinehurst attendance district.
Enrollment was capped at 250, and the school developed waiting lists of families hoping to get into the program.
Given the school’s consistent academic success, families and teachers were shocked to learn that Academy Heights’ closure was under consideration in order to save the system $500,000 a year.
Parents wanted answers from Purser and the board, calling the proposal “rash” and “shortsighted” during public hearings and other meetings. Many were angry that the system failed to give sufficient notice about the closure, as families had to figure out where children would attend school before the start of the new year-round school year in July.
‘A Little Bit Sad’
Purser expected a large outcry and held a meeting for Academy Heights parents soon after the announcement. For three hours, she stood before parents at West Pine Elementary School, answering questions and listening to parents.
“I knew my recommendation was totally disruptive to their lives,” she says. “Their need was to speak. It was important for me to hear every single question that they wanted to raise so that as we continued to work forward, we would know things that we needed to address in the process.”
Academy Heights’ closure was originally put on the table in 2006, when the Board of Education approved a facilities master plan, outlining the conditions of the system’s current facilities and establishing a timeline for when the system can expect to address future needs.
Purser explained that back then, the system said little could be done to upgrade the Academy Heights facility due to its age and confined land mass.
Parents balked and credited high test scores to the unique team of teachers, principals, parents and students that would break up if the 77-year-old school closed.
“I left that meeting wishing that I was going to be able to bring closure,” Purser says. “And I was a little bit sad that at the end of the day, not everybody’s wishes were going to be met.”
After parents asked for compromise, Purser and her staff offered a new proposal to split the program between Pinehurst Elementary School for grades K-2 and West Pine Elementary School for 3-5.
She also wanted to form a year-round task force of parents from the Southern Pines and Pinehurst programs to promote year-round and look into potentially expanding it to other areas of the county.
‘Focus on the Vision’
On April 11, the Board of Education voted 7-1 to close the school and relocate the program in its approval of the 2011-2012 budget.
The board also passed a plan to consolidate the bus system, which resulted in staggered school start times to maximize bus efficiency.
The change shifted high school start times back 45 minutes, so schools could share buses, save at least $700,000 a year and reserve buses for use in future years; however, families had a hard time adjusting with elementary, middle and high schools starting and dismissing at different times.
Academy Heights parents were happy to see compromise, though they were sad that the school would close.
Others thought Purser caved to Academy Heights families at the expense of the rest of the school system with the new recommendation.
Purser understands people will disagree, but she says her decision was based on the original vision behind the Academy Heights year-round program.
“I reviewed all of why Academy Heights was created as it was,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘Is there a way to continue with the vision that was created?’ It may not look exactly the same, but let’s focus on the vision, and then let’s see what details need to be tweaked.”
Carol Ray, former president of the Academy Heights PTA, still can’t believe the school closed.
“When you look at what a great program it was and how well everything was going, what an attribute it was to the community, it is still shocking to me that they would have closed the school down,” she says.
She believes Purser’s tenure will be defined by Academy Heights’ closure.
“Her legacy is closing down the number one school in the county,” she says.
Ray also disapproves of the fear she saw in teachers during the process. Though most of the teachers from Academy Heights kept their jobs, she thinks teachers are often discouraged from voicing their opinions in a public forum.
The main regret Purser takes away from the Academy Heights controversy was the way the school’s staff learned of the recommendation.
“There were some factors that were not in my control regarding the communication,” she says. “It’s important to demonstrate dignity and respect for the individuals in a system, and when the communication was not what I wish it had been, I don’t feel that people were honored in the process as well as they should have been.”
Ray thinks the system has a long way to go toward transparency.
“You communicate with them, but you don’t get much feedback,” she says. “Things aren’t addressed as quickly. I think there is a great amount of improvement that can be done there, at least from my experience at the Academy Heights level.”
Elizabeth Bode, mother of two children in the year-round programs at Pinehurst Elementary and West Pine Elementary, still feels mistrust when dealing with the school system, though her children are happy in their new schools.
“You’re just unsure of what they’re going to do next,” she says.
Bode joined the year-round task force hoping to help make the Pinehurst option open to all families interested in the area. She believes an honest dialogue about the option cannot truly take off until the system makes sure that its current programs are sound.
“We can promote year-round all we want, but they need to make sure the model in Pinehurst is a strong model to promote,” she says. “They’re not willing to make it as strong as they can.”
Purser said the source of frustration comes from steps taken to make sure that the year-round programs could accommodate students in their new locations for the 2011-2012 year.
‘Honoring the Definitions’
When the program relocated, Purser kept in place the old Pinehurst Elementary attendance guidelines that originally defined who was eligible to attend Academy Heights. The guidelines do not take into account the new West Pine Elementary attendance district, which was created along N.C. 5 when the school opened in 2010.
Because of this standard, students living in the current Pinehurst Elementary attendance district can choose to opt into the program at both schools; however, students in the portion of the West Pine district that was not originally a part of the old Pinehurst district cannot.
Purser says the system is still determining how to allow transfers into the program without opening up the floodgates and overwhelming each school. She believes that by first working with the task force to determine where interest in year-round lies, the school system will be able to move forward accordingly.
“Basically, what we have to do to get things moving is we have to be more restrictive in honoring the definitions we’ve put in place,” she says. “Then over time, as we understand what the scope is, we will have that opportunity [to open it up].”
Bode doesn’t blame Purser, though the entire situation changed her view of the school system. She hopes that the new superintendent, Aaron Spence, will take the school system in a better direction.
Board of Education member Bruce Cunningham says Purser’s decisions had to be made as the system “came under the scrutiny of the budgetary microscope.”
“I think it’s to her credit that she was willing to take some unpopular stands,” Cunningham says. “I’m sure that not everybody understood and appreciated what had to be done, but we’re not out of the woods yet. We can’t do business the way we’ve gotten accustomed to doing it.”
Board Chairwoman Kathy Farren praises Purser for her grace as a leader despite often being a scapegoat for unpopular policies.
“I knew that if it was a decision she had brought to us, it was a decision she had thought through,” Farren says. “She was all about trying to keep every position available so it didn’t affect kids and staff.”
Born Susan Richardson, Purser spent much of her childhood in Indiana. But in 1959, her family moved to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to follow her father, who was a salesman for Kraft Foods.
As a fifth-grader moving from an integrated school to the depths of the Jim Crow South, she was confused.
“It was a puzzling time to move into an area that openly demonstrated exclusion,” Purser says. “As a child, I did not understand it, really, but I didn’t feel good about it. I think, consequently, that’s been a value that has carried through my career in trying to look for inclusion and how we design a system that is inclusive of people rather than isolating.”
She found that broader sense of inclusion as a student-teacher at Lanier High School, a predominantly African American high school in Jackson, Miss., just after what was referred to as the “fruit basket turnover” of desegregation.
Purser taught there while she was taking her final college math courses. She would teach a class in the morning, go back to the college, and then go back to teach a class in the afternoon.
“I would go back and complete the day at the school, and I wouldn’t see another white face the whole time I was there,” she says.
Purser had found her calling.
“I fell in love with the kids, quite honestly,” she says.
Memories from her childhood and that first teaching experience remained as Purser strove to pursue policies that would foster a greater good for all 12,500 in the Moore County school system.
“My experience as a child looking at exclusion — that drives me a lot,” she says. “What do we do for the child who doesn’t have the means for a parent to come forward to [be vocal or be involved]? I think we have to be their advocate when nobody else is there.”
Purser also attributes her tendency to go beyond the status quo to that desire for inclusion.
“I think throughout my entire career, I’ve never been satisfied with the way things are,” she says. “It’s not that I don’t cherish the joy of things being really good, it’s that I always want them to be better.”
Purser sees the school system strive for something better each day under the Growing to Greatness accountability model-- the framework in which the school system operates based on the four core beliefs of learning, community, culture and leadership.
Purser helped the Board of Education draft the plan and implement it two years ago in efforts to serve the whole student, not test scores. Now, she is finally starting to see the program take root as a unifying force in the school system.
“The fact that we had done that work made us strong enough to deal with the crises we’ve had to deal with,” she says. “When I got here, we were scattered. People were well intentioned. Folks wanted some clarity — what is our vision? Over time, we’ve come together.”
‘A Good 40’
After earning her teaching certificate and graduating from Millsaps with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Purser officially began her career teaching in 1971 at St. Joseph High School in Jackson, Miss.
She went there expecting to jump into teaching, not marriage.
Geoffery Purser was the big brother of a student she was leading on a school band trip to New Orleans. He still remembers the first time he saw his wife, then known as “Ms. Richardson” to her students. He expected an older woman.
“She was a knockout!” he says.
Purser had volunteered to be a chaperone on the trip for his sister, who was a sophomore. He remembers sitting in the car, waiting to get on the bus and asking her who this “Ms. Richardson” was. ... She pointed her out, and it was all over.”
Purser asked Richardson out on a date after the trip, but she turned him down because she had another commitment.
Not wanting to get his feelings hurt a second time by asking again, Purser figured he’d move on, but a week later, he received a letter in the mail asking him for a rain check.
“I still have that letter,” Purser says.
In August, the Pursers will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
“And it’s been a good 40 years too,” he adds.
They have two daughters, Cambre and Molly, and five grandchildren.
Susan Purser credits her husband for always being a strong source of support for her.
“I know how very blessed I am,” she says. “He’s been great. He’s followed me around with my career.”
Job Becomes ‘a Passion’
Purser worked in Jackson until 1988, teaching math at the junior high and high school levels, as well as serving as a principal, curriculum specialist and director of special projects.
Despite her promise that she was done with her own education, she also earned a master’s degree in mathematics and an educational specialists degree in secondary education from Mississippi State, where she also taught math for two years. Later on, she enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi to pursue her doctorate in educational leadership after going into administration.
Purser made the decision after participating in an executive leadership program for women teachers in her district to pursue administrative positions because she believed administration was all about “high-paying” and “low-stress” jobs.
“Shows how naive I was,” she says, laughing. “During the process, I started really thinking about what I was doing, and I realized how what at one time had been a job had become a career and become a passion for me.”
Purser loved going back to school, even though she had to commute 100 miles each way, sometimes four nights a week, to get to class.
One evening, a professor asked the class to go around the room and say what their career goals were. Before she knew what she was saying, Purser said she wanted to be a superintendent.
“That was the first time I had ever said it,” she says. “I thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ It was one of these things where you don’t realize sometimes what is there.”
After receiving her doctorate, Purser took a position in Oklahoma City as the divisional director of planning, research and information services for its school district. Four years later, she took a position as assistant superintendent under one of her mentors, Eric Smith, in Newport News, Va. She then followed him to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System in 1996 to serve as associate superintendent.
When her father’s health began to decline in 2000, Purser landed a superintendent position in Pontotoc, Miss., to be closer to her parents. She had promised herself she would never move back, but she’s glad she did.
“I would say it was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she says. “I cherish the fact that I was there for about a year and a half before my dad passed away.”
Purser began thinking about future opportunities. A friend told her about a superintendent position in Moore County. Purser filled out the application and didn’t think more about it. She didn’t believe she’d actually get the job.
The position had been vacated by Pat Russo, who had resigned as superintendent over accusations that the school system misused state remedial funds to pay students not to take the SAT as a means of making the system’s overall scores look better.
On her second interview with the Board of Education, she spent a lot of time driving around the county to meet various people in the community.
“During the course of that conversation with folks, I knew there was some tension and some discontent,” she says.
When she returned to Mississippi, Purser was surprised to learn that Moore County residents had contacted her staff and told them that she didn’t know what she was getting into.
“My hunch was that they were trying to discourage me,” she says. “But even though it was clear that there were some issues, I didn’t need an airplane to get home because I was flying so high after meeting all the folks that I met. I really liked the people, even when some asked me some very challenging questions. I was instantaneously drawn to the place.”
Purser became Moore County’s first female superintendent in July 2004. She came into the position knowing she would have to rebuild trust with the community.
“What I found was that folks were extremely receptive,” she says. “I made a point of getting out, being involved, meeting groups, trying to meet as many people as I could, being accessible.”
She was amazed at the welcome she received from the system’s staff as well.
“They greeted me so warmly,” she says. “Apprehension was bound to be there, but that isn’t what I saw. I saw them very open to allow me to come in.”
Purser began her tenure by holding community meetings and forming advisory groups with staff on every level of the system to get to know them and determine where the system needed to go.
“My plan of action was getting to know as much of the district as I could during that first year,” she says. “I had an opportunity to get to know folks, to help see what was here and start to move.”
Bruce Cunningham won election to the Board of Education the following December in a wave of turnover for the board. As a community activist who had challenged Russo during his tenure and later as an elected official, Cunningham views Purser as a “calming” influence that the system needed.
“I think she was the right person at the right time,” he says. “I believe that she brought with her a value system that encouraged cooperative education, rather than competitive education.
Kathy Farren also joined the board then and has enjoyed working with Purser, whom she describes as “the leading lady” of the school system.
“Now, I feel there is a lot of trust in the system,” she says. “Are there problems? Yes. There are problems everywhere, but I think the overall atmosphere of the school system is much healthier than it was seven years ago. I think Dr. Purser is leaving the system in a much better position than she came into.”
Purser gives a lot of credit to her husband’s willingness to let her pursue her career, even if it meant he had to start over in his.
Geoffery Purser says it was Susan’s turn to pursue her dreams when the family chose to move to Oklahoma City after years of supporting his career running a landscaping business.
“We’ve always done everything together, and it’s a team,” he says. “Susan was there for me in all of that and in some perspectives kept her career in check so I could follow mine.”
For the past 12 years, the Pursers have both been able to pursue their careers, as Geoffery spends five days a week traveling as an energy consultant. Though he says his wife doesn’t need any help from him, he is always a phone call away, ready to listen.
“I’m a big block in her foundation, but she’s done it,” Purser says. “I haven’t helped. Susan’s a big girl. She can handle things by herself. She just needs somebody to listen to her.”
Now as his wife pursues retirement, Purser is open to the possibility of what’s next for them as a couple.
“We’ll just see what’s out there—follow our noses,” he says. “So far, that’s worked.”
Handing Off the Reins
As a year of hard change comes to an end along with her career, Purser thinks about the difficult decisions she has had to make and concludes that criticism just comes with the territory.
“I like questions, and I am accepting of the fact that we’re not always going to agree,” she says. “I also recognize that in this role, it’s my responsibility to sometimes do things that I know are not going to be pleasant, that I know aren’t going to be popular. I will always try to figure out how to find common ground and make it more palatable to folks to work through the change, but that’s what I view as my responsibility.”
Purser imparts that advice to Aaron Spence, who will replace her as superintendent in February. She admits she is a little jealous that he will be able to come into the system now, just as it is getting off the ground with Growing to Greatness.
“It’s hard to walk away from it,” she says wistfully. “I believe that in spite of the challenges we’ve gone through, our folks are committed to the right things.”
Sandhills Community College President and colleague John Dempsey can understand Purser’s decision to step down.
“If you saw her Christmas card, you’ll know why she’s retiring,” he says, referring to the card featuring her grandchildren. “They’re just angelic little tykes. I think she wants to immerse herself in that world to a much greater extent than she can with her current duties, and their gain is our loss.”
Purser anticipates being more involved with her grandchildren. She also looks forward to staying in Moore County and being a part of the community she found so much support from during her tenure.
“For the first time in my life, I really haven’t planned,” she says. “I’m getting really excited about playing with my grandchildren, not having an agenda, just taking one day at a time.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe by email at email@example.com.
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