Bill Morris joined the Harnett County Schools Board of Education feeling like he had some sort of idea of what to expect. While the past eight years produced some unexpected curveballs, Morris is leaving with the same priority he had since day one: putting children first.
Elected in 2012, Morris brought little experience to the board and he knew it. Having a school teacher for a wife introduced Morris to some of the issues facing education, but it wasn’t until he got on the inside that the scope of his position hit home.
“It has been, even with all the controversy, very rewarding on multiple levels,” Morris said. “[Sen.] Thom Tillis told me once when I got elected that if I could do two terms on the board of education I can hold any office in the land. He also said that understanding being elected doesn’t make you an expert on education overnight. I took those [words] to heart and took my first two years and kind of rode my way through it.”
Morris, 55, came to HCS with an extensive background in law enforcement. He served with the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office and retired as Erwin’s chief of police in 2017. Morris brought that tough love approach to the school system and focused on making sure every student had the opportunity to learn.
“Our school system on discipline isn’t perfect, but it’s better than when I first got on there,” said Morris. “I’ve been a big proponent of discipline. If you break into somebody’s house tonight and you make bond by the morning, you’re going to the alternative learning school. Those children deserve an education and probably need it more than anyone else, but we have 1,300 other children at each of these schools who deserve to be educated in a safe environment. We’ve taken a strong stance on that.”
Morris also helped address the seemingly never ending changes to the school system’s educational programs. A University of North Carolina at Pembroke study revealed HCS teachers suffered from program fatigue due to the constant changes implemented by the Department of Public Instruction. When the school board hired Superintendent Aaron Fleming, Morris said they made it clear the carousel of programs would stop.
“We told him that whatever program he picked he would have to stick with for five years,” Morris said. “We’ve switched so much our people don’t know what to do. Not everybody was happy with it, but it’s quieted down and a lot of the problems of not having that standard have gone away.”
School construction continued to be a major focus point for the board throughout Morris’ tenure. In the past eight years, HCS completed construction at two campuses, broke ground on another and entered the early planning stages on a new elementary school in Northwest Harnett County. Bringing new schools to Benhaven and Erwin, Morris said, were high on his priority list, especially after touring both sites in an official capacity.
“I knew Erwin was in bad shape, but Benhaven was a death trap,” said Morris. “I was ashamed to ask what they needed. It was worse than Erwin ever thought about. Those are fond memories for me: Replacing those two schools and helping to put policies in to make our schools safer.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge Morris and the education board faced happened this year with the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools shuttered in March and have yet to return to normalcy, leaving Morris afraid of what lies ahead for students struggling to learn remotely.
“I think an injustice has been done to these children,” Morris said. “If they can run around at Walmart and Lowe’s and that’s OK, then we should have had our school systems open. We were in the process of developing a virtual academy anyhow. To throw it in there this early, [Gov.] Cooper has done an injustice. It’s a political issue with Gov. Cooper and the children will be the ones to suffer for it.”
Despite the overall disaster the sudden switch to remote learning turned out to be, Morris praised HCS staff and leadership with making the most of a bad situation.
“I think our staff has done everything they can do,” said Morris. “Every day we go into this we’re learning something new. Our people have climbed mountains and jumped hurdles and put fires out every day in the interest of serving those children. It’s not an ideal environment. It’s like herding cats in that you have to just do the best that you can.”
Morris said the effects of COVID-19 on learning probably won’t be realized for several years and a change of attitude may be needed in society when it comes to the jobs people do.
“I’m a big proponent of vocational education,” Morris said. “One of the things that has to happen is that the days of folks looking down on people who work with their hands has got to end. Where it’s really going to tell is a couple places: One is when our high school kids start entering college in a year or so and the other is when the college kids of today enter the workforce and they don’t have a clue. It’s going to be terrible I think.”
Morris offered a few words of advice for the next rendition of the board, particularly as it deals with a new iteration of the Harnett County commissioners: The jobs continue.
“There are new people going on both boards so the political winds will change,” said Morris. “They’re just going to have to bite the bullet and do what they can. There are so many things in education that are a challenge. If you could take the politics out of education it would be a whole lot better.”
As far as what the future holds, Morris said he has plenty to keep him busy for the time being, but another run in politics hasn’t been ruled out. He unsuccessfully ran for county commissioner this year.
“I will miss going to the schools and seeing what is going on with the kids,” said Morris. “Principals could tell me what they need and I enjoyed hearing from parents.
“I’ve had a lot of calls recently about this office or that office. I’ve told them there is no point in getting bent of shape about it at this point. Let’s let the dust settle and we’ll talk about it.”
Harnett County may not have heard the last of Morris on the political circuit.
“I’m going to stay involved in politics,” he said.
-Dunn Daily Record