It was a time when Fayette County had only one traffic light, located in downtown Fayetteville. It was a time when the county had only one high school, also in Fayetteville.
And it was the time when now-retiring Fayette County School Superintendent John DeCotis arrived to teach at J.C. Booth Junior High School in Peachtree City.
Preparing for his last day with the school system on June 30, DeCotis took a few minutes last week to reflect on his 31 years with Fayette County schools. It was a journey that took him from the classroom and coaching duties to the role as one of Georgia’s longest-serving superintendents.
The perennial issues of funding and the politics of public education aside, The Citizen wanted our readers to hear the thoughts and reflections of a man who has helped define today’s Fayette County School System.
John DeCotis began his career in upstate New York where he taught in a Catholic school for three years. He later earned a master’s degree from Springfield College in Massachusetts.
At the completion of the program in 1979 he took advantage of a résumé program that resulted in calls from school systems out west and in Georgia. One of those was from the new Booth Junior High School, as it was known then, DeCotis said.
“So I decided to come for an interview because I was trying to get away from the cold weather. I never did like the snow much as an adult. Our city was losing people in droves because industry was moving and they were closing schools. So it was not a good place for a career in education,” DeCotis explained.
“So I took the train to Atlanta. And once I got to Atlanta, they directed me to the Greyhound bus station where I took the bus to Fayetteville. The Greyhound stopped in front of Brown’s Barber Shop (on the courthouse square). When I got off the bus I was unshaven, my tie was off and my hair was messy where I’d been sleeping on the train.”
DeCotis was met at the bus stop by then-Assistant Superintendent Doug Bennett.
“He was already there so I didn’t have time to put my tie on. I was a little embarrassed about that,” DeCotis said with a chuckle. They drove about a block to what is now the school system’s transportation building. Back then it served as the county office since the current office had not been built, DeCotis said.
“Back then the superintendent, Merlin Powers, and the assistant superintendent used to interview teachers. And Sarah Goza, the principal at Booth, was there. They interviewed me and offered me a position,” said DeCotis. “So I had to decide what I was going to do. The next day I took the bus back to Atlanta then took the train back and finished my summer job. Before school started, I packed my car up with everything I owned at the time and drove down here.”
DeCotis soon found a man in Peachtree City who needed a roommate and he began coaching football in August. At the time Fayette County had seven schools, and the new Booth Junior High was opening. So when school started DeCotis began his duties in the classroom.
“Back then class sizes were different. I was teaching some classes with 40-plus kids in them. In some cases they were sitting on the floor because we didn’t have enough desks,” he said. “Back then Peachtree Parkway ended at McIntosh Trail.”
DeCotis taught and coached at Booth for two years. During that time he obtained a license to drive a standard transmission schoolbus after learning to do so during his daily planning period.
“There were no automatic transmission buses then. My license has since expired. I didn’t renew it,” he said with a smile. “I enjoyed the coaching and teaching, but I was kind of beginning to get interested in administration because I had been a summer camp administrator. So I enrolled at Georgia State to get my school administration degree. I went part-time at night, from 1980-1986.”
DeCotis said that while at Booth, a couple of administrative positions for assistant principal came open.
“I applied for a couple of them and got interviewed but I didn’t get hired because I was the new kid on the block and all that,” he said, adding that, “The county was very rural then. We had one stop light in the county and that was at the courthouse in Fayetteville.”
Another administrative opening came later, this time at Fayette County High School. DeCotis was hired as assistant principal.
“It was the only high school in the county at that time, but it had 1,700 kids in it,” he said. “So I went to work there for one year and learned a lot.”
That was around the time that McIntosh High School was opening.
“When they were originally opening it, it was going to be called West Fayette High School,” DeCotis explained. “I wanted to be a part of McIntosh opening because I had worked with a lot of those kids at Booth. So I applied and was transferred to McIntosh as assistant principal (for the opening) in the fall of 1982.”
DeCotis served at McIntosh for about two years. Wanting to further his career in administration, DeCotis applied and was hired in late 1984 as principal at Huddleston Elementary.
“I stayed there until 1988. Meantime, the community was growing all this time. The community at that time was rated the fastest growing county in Georgia and one of the fastest in the country. And we made all these magazine lists as a desirable place to live. So the county was growing and the school system was struggling with handling all these students. As soon as schools were built, trailers had to be put in right away because the county was growing so fast,” said DeCotis.
It was in 1988 that DeCotis applied for and secured a position as the school system’s Director of Elementary Education.
“At that time Dr. Todd was director of the secondary schools and I became director of the elementary schools. That was around the time that Marion Key was first elected to the school board,” said DeCotis. “Our offices were in what is now the Fayetteville City Hall, and now those offices are housed at the (Lafayette Education Center). I was in that position until 1994.”
DeCotis recalled that during those years the county was still growing, because “People wanted to be here and there were good families coming in that wanted to be a part of the school system.”
And it was during these years that the school system sold the old elementary school to Fayetteville to be used as the new city hall location. The proceeds from that sale were used to construct the current county office location on Stonewall Avenue.
With economic times tight and the board’s decision not to fill the position when Todd retired, DeCotis assumed responsibility for elementary and secondary education in 1996.
“We were dealing with a lot of significant things that were happening at that time at the state level. The state was trying to upgrade schools and trying to make sure everyone was following a certain standard. It was a major transitional time because we had a lot of local control at the school district (level),” DeCotis said. “So it was a challenging time to be in administration.”
Along with those transitions came one with voter approval to have superintendents be appointed rather than elected in order to give school boards more control with superintendents, DeCotis noted.
“Our board advertised for the job and hired David Brotherton. He brought in Fred Oliver and others. He moved around a lot of principals and county offices positions and reorganized the county office and the schools,” he said. “At that time I was appointed as assistant superintendent because they created an opening with all the moving around, and, with the new superintendent coming in, they wanted to keep somebody here that knew what was going on in the school district. So that person was me.”
DeCotis served as assistant superintendent for about two and one-half years, until Brotherton left and the superintendent’s position became vacant. And it was in his first few months and years in the position as superintendent that events occurred that presented a number of challenges both to him and the school system.
“Then I got hired in April 1999,” he said, putting it simply and adding no other comment. “A couple of weeks later Columbine occurred, which created an immense fear in the community. We had already taken measures when it first occurred, but with the community conversations (providing input on what the school system should do) we tightened up security, added name badges and cameras, started using resource officers and were the first district in Georgia to develop a safety plan.”
Continuing his thoughts, DeCotis said it was a couple of years later that a 1-cent sales tax initiative for facilities failed and a subsequent bond issue passed for school construction in 2001.
“At that time Fayette County High School had 2,300 kids, Starr’s Mill had over 2,000, McIntosh had almost 2,000,” he explained. “All the schools were crowded. All the elementary schools had tons of trailers. And that’s before the state lowered class sizes. People at the time were saying, ‘Every time you open a school they’re overcrowded,’ so we worked on better communication between the school system and the cities and county. We set up regular meetings with planners so we could get an idea about where construction was going to take place, how many building permits had been approved and the locations where they saw growth coming.”
“So when we did that last bond (passed in 2004 and raised funds to build Bennett’s Mill, Inman and Rivers), in our view, the growth was still going pretty strong. And then we built those schools and then the economy dropped on us and then we ended up having more space than we needed.
“Rivers Elementary we’re not using fully and some of our other schools are not at capacity,” DeCotis continued. “In the early 2000s after we built those schools the governor got a bill passed to lower the class sizes which decreased the capacity of those buildings. So we just built all those new schools and all of a sudden they became full when we had to open up so many new classrooms because of the lower class sizes.
“We got back into trouble again with space because we had to create all these new classrooms. The bottom line was the state didn’t pay for it the way they should have, so we didn’t get the money to pay for the teachers. So at that time, that’s when we looked at having some more schools so we could overcome the overcrowding.”
DeCotis said the school system got things handled and started building the schools, only to see the economy hit the wall and the growth stop.
Commenting on other issues during the past three decades, DeCotis said the school system initiated a voluntary portion of the alternative school. Later, it combined with the remainder of the alternative school and the evening high school to form the Open Campus program.
Other initiatives over the years included introducing technology-oriented offerings for the school system’s vocational programs, firming up the Facility Equity program to ensure that schools had adequate facilities and furthering the work of the Race Relations Committee, DeCotis said.
DeCotis said the school system has also maintained its focus on academics.
“There’s always room for improvement, but I think we’ve done a good job keeping academics as high as possible,” he said.
DeCotis in noting the expanse of his three decades with the school system said Fayette had always been a community of friendly people. He spoke highly of the involvement of both parents and the business community.
“When I first came here I was kind of taken aback with how friendly everybody was. I didn’t expect that. It was a welcoming community. I guess (it was) from coming from a more populated and a different part of the country where the pace was a little quicker,” he said.
“The people here were welcoming. It was a good thing. And they have been welcoming ever since then. The community support for the schools has been overwhelming. It’s not like that in a lot of places. In some places it’s hard to get parental or booster involvement or business community involvement. This has been refreshing and very good for us. It makes our system strong.”
Near the end of his thoughts on the school system and his time here, DeCotis turned his comments to the challenges facing the school system.
“When I first came, the free and reduced lunch count was about 2 percent. Now it’s about 38 percent and it continues to grow. So one of the challenges is that we will have more students who are economically struggling. So whoever comes in will have to be aware of that,” DeCotis said.
DeCotis said another challenge rests with the county’s changing diversity. In 1979 the county was 98 percent Caucasian, while today the student body is just over 50 percent Caucasian, he said.
“So the challenge for the new person is to be accepting of diversity and to be able to work with diversity,” he said. “I feel like we’ve been doing that.”
Yet another challenge for the new superintendent is the economy.
“The resources are not going to be like they were in the past,” DeCotis said.
DeCotis concluded his remarks with a few reflections on his three decades with the school system.
“I think it’s been a good career move for me and my family. I’ve had three children that have graduated from Fayette County schools. They got a great education. They had some great teachers. So my reflection is positive. People were nice to me, and the community was supportive of the school district. I’ve worked with some good people,” he said in his often mild-mannered way.
Another reflection centered on his 31 years in Fayette, the experience he gained from beginning in the classroom and taking on different responsibilities as the years progressed.
“One of the interesting things as I went up through the different jobs was that you get to see how different decisions impact each level. So whenever I tried to make a decision I tried to see the impact on those levels,” DeCotis said. “Sometimes your choices are not always good. You have to move forward with a decision on certain things, but what it does is it helps you to understand the impact of those decisions at the (various) levels.”
“There were a lot of things could have happened that didn’t happen, things that would have had a negative input,” DeCotis continued. “But because I had experience at that those levels I could say to that person that I didn’t think it was a good idea. ‘If you change that homework policy that’s what’s going to happen,’ or at the county level if you decide to change the curriculum in a certain way certain things will result. Nobody knows what the person does above them until they are in that position. When I was a teacher I thought I knew what the assistant principal did. I didn’t really know. When I was assistant superintendent, I thought I knew what the superintendent did. No. Until you’re in that seat, you don’t really know.”
As for the future, DeCotis said that remains to be seen.
“I feel like I would still like to continue to contribute, so I have some feelers out, but I don’t have any specific plans at this point,” he said.
Thirty-one years in Fayette County schools. John DeCotis ends that career today (Wednesday).