June 3, 2019
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
“Hello parents, this is James Evans with Rutherford County Schools and—”
Students, parents and even employees of the school district often wait with bated breath for what comes next. In fact, more than 400 county educators are members of a Facebook group titled “We Love James Evans 2.”
Group moderator Cindy Moffett and administrator Gail McCoy-Vaughn made clear the new page is “a place for educators to have some fun with the dream of a snow day.”
“He’s got a big fan club,” said School Board Chairman Jim Estes. “They love to hear him on snow days.”
And with that more than 47,000 students, their parents and approximately 5,500 employees of Rutherford County Schools collectively cheer when they hear him say, “All schools will be closed—”
With any other message, especially during the winter months, and there is a good chance they stop listening out of disappointment.
“He’s become like an urban legend about the snow thing,” Spurlock said. “It’s hilarious. Even my newest grandson has a little outfit that says, ‘James Evans called.’ It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”
Spurlock added, “Anytime there isn’t a weather delay or anytime there’s an early dismissal, he gets vilified on Facebook because they think he’s making the decisions. He’s the messenger. Don’t shoot the messenger. Sometimes they like it and sometimes they kind of get on him a little bit, but he’s done a great job over the time he’s been here.”
Estes joked, “And he doesn’t even get the day off.”
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A native of Cheatham County, Evans grew up in Pegram, the middle son of three boys.
He moved to Murfreesboro in Fall of 1996 to attend Middle Tennessee State University. Evans intended to major in business administration before switching to journalism. After starting as a new reporter and then editor in chief of the student newspaper, Sidelines, he interned and then was hired by the Nashville Business Journalprior to graduating. His first job after college was with the Ashland City Times. After six months as a reporter, he was named editor of the paper before eventually transferring to the Rutherford A.M.section of The Tennessean.
Newly married – he and his wife Adrianne now have three boys: Sawyer, Samuel and Sander – Evans was looking for a media-related job “where the hours are a little more stable” and applied for the position of communication coordinator with the school district.
“It just intrigued me,” he said.
He was originally hired by former Director of Schools Harry Gill and has since worked under Don Odom and now Spurlock, for the past year.
A lot has changed with the school system since he was hired in September 2004.
The enrollment has ballooned from just under 30,000 students to more than 47,000 students 15 years later. This coming August the district will include 49 schools compared to 38 schools when Evans first started.
LaVergne Middle had opened only a month prior to his hiring.
Rutherford County Schools is not only growing, but it is growing quickly according to Evans, whose role continues to evolve as the size and needs of the district, its schools, educators, students and parents continue to change.
“It’s a busy atmosphere,” Evans said. “It keeps me moving and it’s not boring, but there are some days that I definitely wish it was quieter than it is.”
“His role is very diverse,” Spurlock said, “and he does a little bit of everything, including zone exemptions, which can be a job in itself.”
Spurlock works in lockstep with several district leaders, including Evans.
The two often talk about a myriad of issues facing any one of the 49 county schools. This past year, Evans was also responsible to organizing all nine of the town hall meetings hosted by Spurlock. They met after each one of them to discuss the effectiveness and how to continue adjusting the meetings to be more efficient and meet the needs of the parents.
“I have direct access to the decisionmakers, and I can state my opinions and things like that,” Evans said, “so I can be part of the change. … Just to be part of that movement is really special.”
“He makes suggestions,” Spurlock said. “Sometimes I agree with him. Sometimes I don’t. 99.9 percent of the time, I agree. It’s good to have that sounding board that provides you feedback that, perhaps, maybe you didn’t think about.”
“He can adapt as quick as anybody we have at the (Central Office),” said Estes, who credited the amount of experience Evans has with the district coupled with his media skills and problem-solving ability. “If something comes up, he can tell you what needs to be done.”
Institutional knowledge has proved to be a valuable commodity, especially when it comes to identifying issues with schools and working with principals and administrators to craft the appropriate messages.
“He understands how the message sounds,” Spurlock said, “and how it should reflect what actually occurred.”
He works alongside principals and other administrators in dealing with imaginable and unimaginable issues that schools at all grade levels face on any given day, whether school is in session or not.
With the local media landscape shrinking coupled with his background, he’s focused a lot of energy on developing positive and proactive communication with the community “to make sure that parents have the information they need to make decisions” regarding their child’s education.
Perhaps the newest element related to communication is the explosive growth of social media.
In addition to receiving between 200 and 300 emails every day, RCS has nearly 30,000 followers on Twitter and another 10,000 friends on Facebook, which leads to comments, replies and direct messages that need to be read, replied to and monitored 24 hours a day.
“I don’t know if he sleeps much to be honest with you,” Spurlock said. “Anytime there’s an incident that comes up in the county, he’s very quick to identify, diagnose it and provide feedback to those – whether it’s me and my role currently, whether it was Mr. (Don) Odom or whether it was Mr. (Harry) Gill – I think his ability to diagnose a problem or identify a problem, provide information – correct and detailed information – to his superior.”
Estes said, “He just adapts so well to whatever the situation is and that’s an amazing trait.”
“He is good about obviously working with the media,” Spurlock said. “I think that’s very important.”
Estes noted Evans’ ability to diffuse situations and have a good idea of what to say – “his favorite one is, ‘We don’t comment on investigations’” – when he is put on the spot by the media or even principals and parents.
“The relationships that he’s developed over time – whether it be print media or the (television) news media – has given him a level of respect from them,” Spurlock said.
Estes joked, “On top of that, he has a good radio voice.”
Estes is not the only board member who has developed a working relationship with him. Over the years, he worked equally close with Mark Byrnes and, more recently, Wayne Blair as well as other board members.
“He keeps us all abreast of what’s going on,” said Terry Hodge, a longtime School Board member, of the daily media reports Evans sends to all seven board members and Spurlock as well as the assistant superintendents and other Central Office department leaders.
Estes added, “If you ask him for something, it doesn’t take any time to get it, does it?”
“He does a good job,” Hodges replied.
“Yeah, he does,” agreed Estes, who concluded, “I think, we’re going to keep him another week.”
PHOTO / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT