LIVINGSTON — At the end of the day Thursday, Superintendent John Watson will get to play the one role in the Livingston Parish public school system he has not yet had but always wanted: retired superintendent.
Watson said he has been fortunate in his 33½ years with Livingston schools to have held positions that he truly enjoyed and that played to his strengths: teaching science and physical education and coaching basketball at Denham Springs High School; taking his first administrative position under Owen Norgress at Live Oak High School; serving as assistant principal under Cecil Dyess at Westside Junior High; receiving his first principalship at Levi Milton Elementary; and returning to his alma mater, Walker High School, as principal before moving to the central office as supervisor of instruction, supervisor of human resources and assistant superintendent.
He has been superintendent since November 2012, when he took over as interim superintendent pending Bill Spear’s official retirement in February 2013.
“I very much enjoyed my time here,” Watson said. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else. It’s kind of like, where do you go from here? It’s time for someone else to have this opportunity.”
Assistant Superintendent Rick Wentzel will take the reins as superintendent Friday, having been unanimously selected from among four applicants for the job earlier this month.
Asked what advice he would give Wentzel, Watson said the new superintendent should be mindful that not every decision is as urgent as it might first appear.
“There’s very little that’s an actual crisis that you have to decide right now,” Watson said. “Take your time. Use the wisdom and knowledge that your people have, that you have here, and hire the best people you can around you because it makes you look a whole lot smarter when you’ve got great people around you. I’ve had some great people around me.”
As for what advice his own family might offer Wentzel’s family, Watson laughed and said, “There are times you just need to let him be alone. There are times you don’t ask, ‘Well, how was your day?’ and you don’t probe and try to find out why his day was not very good. Sometimes you’ve just got to let him be alone, be quiet and work his way through some things. But always be there for him.”
Watson has seen a lot of change during his tenure as superintendent. The 2012 legislative session, in particular, marked a monumental change for public education in the state, ushering in an era of charter schools, new accountability standards, revamped tenure and retirement systems and a new leadership dynamic among boards and superintendents.
“All of that was attempted to be changed, and a lot of it was changed,” Watson said. “The pendulum swung way in one direction, and it’s starting to come back now where there’s a little more sensibility along with all of that.”
Watson said Livingston Parish not only survived, but thrived amid all the changes.
“I think we’ve pulled all the best parts of it into us and have gotten better all along,” he said. “And that’s the whole goal, to continue to improve. We can never get complacent.”
One thing Watson has not enjoyed about his tenure is enforcing new laws and policies he believed were not in the best interest of his students or teachers. A prime example of that, he said, is testing.
“We have to test probably more than we want to test,” he said. “I understand you have to have exams given, you have to have assessment that allows you to drive curriculum, that moves it forward. But there are times where it seems like we’re doing more, we’re spending much more time testing than we need to be, but you don’t have a lot of choice in that matter.”
Watson said the state also overemphasizes its letter-grades accountability system.
“There is no perfect accountability system, and we do very well from an accountability standpoint,” he said. “But there’s a lot of times you know a teacher or a principal or a school or a child has grown so much, and it just doesn’t show up in a letter grade. There’s so much more to schools than just placing a label on it.”
Although he misses the direct connection with students he had as a teacher and coach, Watson said he has enjoyed being in a position where he can help provide them opportunities for growth and success.
“Working with the students is probably the most rewarding part of any,” he said. “That’s why we all go into it. And as I moved, I missed it — probably less as I moved along and then, as you get farther away from it, you probably miss it more.
“But I think one of the most rewarding things was being able to hire people and then a year or two or three down the road, you see, yes, you made the right decision. That person is in the right place, doing exactly what they need to be doing, and they’re growing and that school or those kids are benefitting from them.”
Watson said he has “no plans for gainful employment” following his retirement.
“I will retire and be retired,” he said with a laugh. “I have a daughter who’s just graduated from Southeastern and started a job. I have a daughter who is getting married this fall, and she’s in her career now. I’m looking forward to spending a little more time with them and watching them and their life go.”
Watson said he also plans to travel, “relearn” to play golf with a new set of clubs he recently bought and maybe build another home in the near future.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” he said. “You’re never totally ready for this job, but I had the pleasure of working with a group of people who all pulled in the same direction. There’s not this way, that way and the other. I had the title of superintendent, but we were all pulling in the same direction, working toward the same goal. I’ve truly been blessed, and now it’s time for someone else.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.