Jason Fountain, the incoming superintendent of the Central school system, has spent most of his career in elementary and secondary education, but before coming to Central in 2009, he spent six formative years in the halls of higher education.
“I was moving to places I’d never lived and where I didn’t know a soul,” Fountain recalled. “I had to kind of find my way, learn on my own, just kind of see if I could do it.”
Now 46, Fountain was 31 years old when he ventured out of a small town in Alabama. He’d grown up in East Brewton, just north of the Florida Panhandle. His mom was principal of his middle school, and his high school graduating class had about 100 students. After college, he spent seven years teaching math not far from home at Bay Minette Middle School.
One of his brothers, a college football coach, suggested that he explore the academic side of college athletics.
In December 2003, Fountain moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to work as an academic counselor for a variety of student athletes at Florida State University. He became part of the university's sports machine led by legendary football coach Bobby Bowden.
Three years later, he took a similar job as academic adviser for LSU’s football team, then led by coach Les Miles.
“That gave me a great appreciation of how a big organization works and how all the pieces fit together,” he said.
But it also spoke to a deep-rooted desire.
“I have always wanted to be a part of things bigger than me,” he said.
Starting Jan. 1, he is taking charge of something bigger. Fountain will become only the second school superintendent Central has seen since it broke away from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system in 2007.
Until then, Fountain is learning at the hands of Central’s first and only superintendent, Michael Faulk. Faulk is leaving to serve as executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.
Michael Faulk has announced his resignation as superintendent of the Central school system, a position he’s held for more than 10 years.
During Faulk’s tenure, Central nearly doubled in enrollment, built two new schools, amassed a healthy surplus and ascended to the top echelon of public school districts in the state. Fountain has pledged to go further, to make Central a “world-class” school district. Faulk said he welcomes Fountain’s ambitions.
“I see it as a continuation of what I’ve been doing, but I see it as us going to the next level, going to a higher level of expectation, a higher level of performance and a higher level of productivity,” he said.
Faulk and Fountain first met when Fountain was hired in January 2009 as assistant principal at Tanglewood Elementary, serving under then-Principal Sandy Davis. In 2012, Faulk moved both Davis and Fountain and made them co-principals of Central Middle. The middle school, along with Central Intermediate School, were moving into a new $46 million, 88-acre complex at 12656 Sullivan Road.
A year later, Faulk promoted Davis to assistant superintendent and made Fountain sole principal at the middle school. Faulk said he liked how Fountain handled personnel, how he stayed abreast of educational research and how he learned from others. Faulk also described Fountain as “futuristic,” someone willing to try new things.
“I thought he had a lot of potential,” Faulk said. “I knew that someday, somewhere down the line, someone would look to him to be the leader of a school system, not knowing that we would be the first ones.”
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David Walker, president of the School Board, said he too has watched Fountain through the years and saw him as a potential future superintendent, though not necessarily in Central.
"He’s always been a very impressive individual, very professional, always went above and beyond on anything he was ever asked to do," Walker said.
In 2016, Faulk brought Fountain to the district's central office, making him director of secondary curriculum and instruction. In that job, which he will hold through Dec. 31, he works with educators at the middle school and high school but also oversees Central’s virtual school as well as its alternative education program.
Faulk said he gave Fountain his current job in order to fill in what he saw as gaps in Fountain's otherwise varied résumé. Looking back, Faulk said he was a better superintendent because of his own own diverse background, including stints as finance and transportation directors.
Fountain said he’s grateful for Faulk’s guidance.
“(Faulk) has been a very influential person for me,” Fountain said. “He’s mentored me. In many ways, he’s taken me under his wing.”
These days, Faulk is schooling Fountain on the intricacies of school finance, a new area for Fountain but one where Faulk’s knowledge is widely respected.
“I keep telling him, you don’t learn this overnight,” Faulk said. “You learn by asking questions and by meeting people.”
Fountain will have another old friend in Assistant Superintendent Davis when he takes over. A potential successor to Faulk, Davis opted not to apply for the job. Fountain said it was only after Davis opted out that he seriously entertained the idea himself. Davis was one of Fountain’s five references on his job application.
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As it turned out, Fountain was a shoo-in. Only three people applied and Fountain was the only in-house applicant. On Oct. 30, the Central School Board voted unanimously to select Fountain.
Walker said contract negotiations are starting after Thanksgiving and said they hope to have some performance goals for Fountain ready for the board to vote on when it meets Dec. 4.
Faulk said Fountain will have to learn how to work directly with School Board members, a new challenge for him, if he hopes to earn their "buy-in" to carry out his agenda, but he said Fountain is off to a good start.
“I believe that he will have (buy-in),” Faulk said. “After all, they voted for him 7-0. I didn’t get a 7-0 vote.”
Fountain said he plans to immediately begin meeting with the School Board to develop a new five-year strategic plan. He said the process will involve “community members, business leaders, stakeholders, parents, teachers and school personnel.”
“Bring everyone to the table to tell where we’re going,” he said. “Once we know where we’re going, it simplifies what we need to do to get there.”
Making Central a “world-class” school district could prove pricey, tricky in historically tax-averse Central.
Bellingrath Hills and Central High are old facilities. Building a new Central High, likely on 150 acres of land that used to house the Greenwell Springs mental hospital, would be the most expensive project of the two.
Walker said the board likes what Fountain is saying, but they will need to settle on a realistic timeline.
"I think we will be supportive. I know the board will (be supportive), if we have the money to do that," Walker said. "But you don’t go from anywhere to No. 1 in a day."
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Also, during the superintendent search, a group of coaches and educators involved in athletics pressed the School Board to improve the athletic facilities Central uses, saying the current ones compare poorly with rival schools.
Fountain said he’s sympathetic to the concerns of coaches and said their concerns will be part of the strategic planning process.
“I believe that nothing can really unite a community like sports can,” he said. “When LSU wins, everybody is happier.”
Though his roots are in south-central Alabama, his wife, Aimee, is a native of Central and a graduate of Central High. Her parents still live in Central. They briefly moved in with the Fountain family for several months after the August 2016 flood that devastated much of Central, including their home. Fountain recalls that as an emotional time.
“That was the most overwhelming hard work that I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “To see their house on that Sunday night when we got in to see it, it was just devastating.”
The Fountains and their two young children soon will be Central residents as well. Fountain said they are in the process of selling their house in Baton Rouge and buying one in Central.
“I want to live in this community. I think that’s important in a superintendent, to be here,” he said. “But also as our kids are starting school in the next couple of years, I want them to live in this community as well.”