There are several standards by which a public school superintendent can be evaluated.
Many students and parents might not recognize their district’s leader if they pass him on the street. A hands-off administrator interested in preserving the status quo may serve out his tenure with little in the way of either fanfare or opprobrium from parents and staff.
In the last year, some critics of Moore County Schools have held up its state-issued school performance grades as a lackluster report card on the district’s leadership.
But following Bob Grimesey’s retirement announcement late last month, his fellow Moore County community leaders measure him against the extent to which he went beyond balancing budgets and keeping Moore County Schools in compliance with state curriculum, class size and funding standards since he was hired in 2014.
“Superintendents — the good ones — are usually change agents. They change things, and that is why they are brought in,” said Pat Corso, who retired as executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress earlier this year.
“He did that, he made big changes, but he also stood the test of time. That is not always the case with change makers. He leaves a vibrant and unprecedented legacy.”
That legacy includes four new elementary schools, three of which replaced crumbling, outdated buildings, and a significantly expanded and renovated North Moore High. Along with those came redrawn attendance lines across the county that have mitigated uneven enrollment — and greatly reduced the number of trailers in service as classrooms — at elementary and middle schools in southern Moore County.
Chief to reducing crowding and evening out attendance numbers was construction of a wholly new McDeeds Creek Elementary. Construction began in 2018 and the school opened less than 18 months later for the 2019-2020 academic year.
It was a day that parents at Sandhills Farm Life, down the road in Whispering Pines, had fought for years to see.
At first, parents had a hard time just finding someone who would listen.
Amanda Senff said that staff at Farm Life were making the most of their available space when her children enrolled there in 2012. But every new school year saw the addition of two or three mobile classroom units, compromising when it came to use of the school’s communal facilities: the cafeteria, the gym, the media center.
Parents shared their concerns with the school’s administration, but started to suspect that their principal was uncomfortable sharing them with district-level staff. So Senff and other parents approached the school board.
“The Board of Education at the time did not respond to our emails, so we began forwarding our concerns to Dr. Bob and speaking at Board of Education meetings,” Senff said. “Dr. Bob showed up at Sandhills Farm Life the very next day after one of those meetings with Bruce Cunningham to observe our concerns. Soon after, we were able to get help with traffic and some maintenance issues fixed.”
The opening of McDeeds absorbed nearly half of Sandhills Farm Life’s enrollment at the time, along with some students from Vass-Lakeview, giving those schools room to deal with continued population growth in the parts of Moore County most easily accessible from Fort Bragg.
“Dr. Grimesey is someone who wants everyone to have a chance to be heard: staff, parents and especially students,” said Senff. “I will forever be grateful for his leadership in getting safe schools built for not only my children but for all the kids of Moore County.”
It also kickstarted an unpopular redistricting process that carved out new attendance zones for McDeeds and the new Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst schools. At the same time, Grimesey and the school board took the chance to shift students from the crowded West Pine and Pinehurst schools into schools serving less populous areas.
‘Fortunate to Accomplish This’
Redistricting wasn’t the only significant challenge of Grimesey’s tenure. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted students to virtual learning and hybrid schedules for a full year, effectively stalling learning for many students and undoing many of the gains the district had realized in teacher and staff morale since 2014.
“No one was prepared for these challenges,” reflected Commissioner Catherine Graham. “I feel that Moore County Schools strived to provide the best services available to continue education in these challenging times.”
Graham chaired the Moore County Board of Commissioners when it approved the addition of the $103 general obligation bond referendum to the 2018 ballot. That referendum passed with 80 percent of the vote and went on to fund the construction of the new Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst elementary schools.
Graham credited the district’s leadership for earning the community support behind that vote, and the subsequent passage of a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help pay for school building debt. It was Grimesey’s ability to work with the commissioners, too, that helped open their eyes to conditions at the old Aberdeen school, and make the new auxiliary gym and science wing at North Moore High a reality.
“It seemed incredible to me that students there had to use a local private gym at 5:30 am before school at North Moore,” said Graham. “That and the lack of lab classes was unacceptable. I believe Moore County was fortunate to accomplish this and McDeeds Creek Elementary School with a limited obligation bond and financing. This could not have been done at a better time in our financial market.”
Whether that momentum in building will continue on to generate a solution for crowding and aging infrastructure at Pinecrest and Union Pines high schools, or a new Carthage Elementary, or more middle school classrooms in southern Moore County will be up to the school board and its next superintendent.
Questions of Replacement
Like Grimesey, that person will also have to make those decisions in the context of increasing school enrollment in southern Moore County.
Former MCS parent Jared Dant said that he would like to see the school board look for a new leader who has experience in a school district that serves a growing population. That administrator, he said, will also need the ability to work with a highly involved population of parents who want “transparency, choice, options and flexibility,” like the district’s new BlendEd homeschooling companion program has begun to provide.
Dant had enrolled his daughter in the Spanish immersion program at West End Elementary before it was phased out in 2017 as a cost-cutting measure.
“It provided me an option to give my children something I could not provide myself,” he said.
Dant hopes that the school board will hire a new superintendent with an independent streak and passion for research, whose values reflect the Moore County community’s. He predicted that the district’s reputation may depend on it as more parents consider alternatives like private and charter schools, or different zip codes altogether.
Like the community leaders who feel the school board will have a hard time replacing Grimesey, Dant agrees that an ideal candidate will be difficult to find.
“He or she should listen to the proclamations of citizens, bureaucrats, experts and officials and then consider all outcomes and side effects, making recommendations based on what they feel represents the local community’s values,” he said. “But most important of all the school board should look for someone who has courage, because that is what it will take to do what I just described.”
‘A Dramatic Missed Opportunity’
For a couple of years, McDeeds Creek had competition as the top priority for new construction. The Advanced Career Center was designed to alleviate crowding at Pinecrest and Union Pines by providing opportunities for upper-level trade courses, languages and business along with Advanced Placement courses. The school was expected to serve 800 students a day for one or two periods, drawing from North Moore as well.
Elementary schools were ultimately prioritized for funding, and the ACC has been sidelined since 2017.
“Although (Grimesey) leaves behind four great schools, which is unprecedented, he also had the vision to look forward to workforce development needs in Moore County,” said Corso, who worked closely with Grimesey on the ACC concept.
“The ACC was a miss, a dramatic missed opportunity, but that was not his fault. I always respected his ability to be pragmatic about the decisions he had to make. It is an innate ability of some people, I think he had that.”
Setting the Tone
When Grimesey retires at the end of January, the ACC will remain an unrealized ambition. But it was a means to more than one end. While the most likely remedy for crowding at Union Pines and Pinecrest is more likely to be a new traditional high school, or an expansion at the existing ones, students are still getting those advanced and technical classes.
That’s happening through partnership with Sandhills Community College — and the students get there better prepared than ever.
“We’ve got great work being done in these high schools and great kids coming out. The number of kids we’ve had to remediate has dropped precipitously in the time Bob has been superintendent,” said John Dempsey, the community college’s longtime president. “The kids perform better in virtually every way.”
In 2015, Moore County Schools had 300 high school students dually enrolled in SCC courses through the state’s no-cost Career and College Promise program. Now there are 1,000.
“That’s always been on the books, but if it doesn't have the administrative backing of the high schools it happens in ones and twos rather than 20s and 30s,” Dempsey said.
“The person at the top really sets the tone. Bob set the tone that enabled a thousand little things to happen so that we could have 400 or 500 more kids from Moore County Schools taking these classes, and they’re taking them for nothing, and getting a real leg up on their college education.”