April 26, 2018
By JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools
Known for his large stature and booming voice, the sight of William “Bill” Spurlock pushing a baby stroller might surprise some.
But that was the scene last July during the open house for the newly constructed Rocky Fork Middle School.
Flanked by members of his family, Spurlock proudly guided one of his grandchildren through the halls of the school during the community tour and ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The smile on his face made it obvious that he cares deeply for his family.
In fact, if you want to see him light up, ask him about his children and grandchildren.
“Two and one on the way,” Spurlock said enthusiastically, when asked about his number of grandchildren. “I’ve got a five-year-old, Braylon, about a 16-month-old, Brody, and then we’ve got this other one on the way.”
That’s a good quality to have in an education leader. At their core, school districts, schools and classrooms are all about one thing — families.
So when Spurlock assumes the reins as director of schools on July 1, he will become leader of one of the largest organizations in Tennessee that serves families.
But being part of a big family is nothing new to Spurlock.
For the past decade, he has served as the principal of Oakland High School, one of the largest schools based on enrollment in Rutherford County and Tennessee.
He is also the second youngest of 10 children — six sisters and three brothers — and cites his relationship with his siblings as a major influence on his upbringing.
“I came from a pretty challenged economic background but there was always that love. And when you’ve got nine siblings, there’s a lot of people you can turn to,” said Spurlock, specifically citing the relationship with his oldest brother who is a retired marine.
Spurlock plans to take his diverse background — as a student, athlete, coach, administrator, academic leader and parent — and use the lessons of those experiences to shape his management philosophy of the school district.
As his guiding principle for leadership, Spurlock has cited a quote from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” Spurlock said in his interview with the Rutherford County Board of Eduction during the selection process.
When Spurlock started at Oakland as principal in 2008, the school was listed as a high priority school by the Tennessee Department of Education. There were obvious areas that needed to be improved, and Spurlock started first by listening to everyone involved and then working with teachers, parents and other supporters to rebuild the school’s performance record and its reputation.
By all measures, it was successful.
Oakland now boasts the International Baccalaureate program, a world-renowned program that is not offered at any other Rutherford County school. The school is also known for its robust Career and Technical Education offerings, including mechatronics.
The mechatronics pathway allows students to achieve Level I Siemens certification and provides multiple opportunities to intern with various local companies before graduating. Then through the school’s partnerships, students can begin working in high-paying positions with those manufacturers while pursing mechatronics degrees at Motlow State Community College and Middle Tennessee State University.
The program has been such a runaway success, it caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos, who chose Oakland as the only public school to visit during a trip to the Nashville area in November.
As director of schools, Spurlock will inherit a school district, which as a whole, has a reputation for high performance and achievement, including being named “exemplary” twice in the past six years. The exemplary designation is the highest ranking offered to school districts by the Tennessee Department of Education.
With such a track record of high performance, Spurlock says his first priority will be to talk with his department heads and principals to take inventory and set goals for additional achievement.
“You’ve got to listen first, you’ve got to listen to those who are on the front lines, those that are working and have been involved with it,” Spurlock said. “Now I have a grasp on some things, but I’ve got to hear it articulated to me and work it from there. We’ve got some very effective people throughout our county. However, it’s always good to get a different perspective.”
Spurlock added: “A lot of times, you’ve got to break it down individually. What I mean by individually is school to school. Each school has its own unique challenges, and anytime you are not looking and seeking to improve, you’re going to regress.”
On the immediate horizon, Spurlock has several key administrator positions to fill because of recent retirements or transfers.
Those positions include the assistant superintendent for construction and engineering, transportation director and head principal positions at Oakland High School, Smyrna High School, Blackman Middle School, and the upcoming Rockvale High School and Rocky Fork Elementary School, both of which are scheduled to open in August 2019.
“Those are very effective people and they’ve done great jobs for our system,” Spurlock said of the people vacating those positions. “I’d like to have a lot of input from them. I’d like to lean on them and their expertise in their area. Ultimately, I want the best we can get.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the new director will be sustaining the enormous population growth in Rutherford County and the resulting swell in student enrollment.
The district’s enrollment growth has been an ongoing struggle for the district over the past two decades. To put it into perspective, Rutherford County Schools’ student enrollment was 25,899 for the 2000-2001 school year. For 2018-2019, that number is expected to hit close to 46,000 students, an increase of approximately 20,000 additional students.
During that time, Rutherford County Schools has held down operating costs efficiently while working with the Rutherford County Commission to secure funding for multiple new schools and additions to serve the growing student population.
As an example of efficiency, the most recent Tennessee Report Card shows that Rutherford County Schools spent $1,300 less than the state average on a per pupil basis. With a student population of about 44,000 during that timeframe, those figures mean the school district spent approximately $57 million less on operating costs than the Tennessee average.
“We have to engage our elected body, but not only that, we have to engage our parents because our parents are a big resource for us,” Spurlock said. “They’re taxpayers, and at the same time, they have children in school. They are big advocates for us. We’ve got to be transparent with not only our funding body but also our constituents — our parents and business leaders.”
Spurlock is a product of Rutherford County Schools and knows firsthand how the right opportunities can help elevate students into productive and rewarding careers as adults.
When he was 12 in 1971, his family relocated to Rutherford County for work and other opportunities, a common theme among those who move to the area today.
The Spurlock family settled in Smyrna, and Spurlock attended John Colemon Elementary School, Thurman Francis Junior High and graduated from Smyrna High School in 1978. He then went to MTSU by way of a football scholarship, where he decided to pursue a career in education to follow in the footsteps of some of his most influential teachers.
“I saw the passion they had, and how they conducted their business within the classroom and how they put their kids first in things that they do,” Spurlock said. “Along the way, seeing individuals like that inspired me. I’d never even thought about it, quite frankly, but it inspired me to follow that profession.”
He became a biology and physical science teacher after discovering an allure toward science.
“I found that interesting,” Spurlock said. “Everything that we do, everything that we touch, everything that we watch and see, has a component of science behind it. In looking at why things occur the way that they do, that was a fascinating area. I felt like that was something I could have passion in. It gave me an opportunity to not only grow as an individual but also as an educator along the way.”
Spurlock also served as the head track coach and assistant football coach at Oakland but was drawn to administration.
Spurlock would fill in as administrator whenever there were absences and served as the summer school administrator multiple times. He earned two more degrees from MTSU and went on to serve as an assistant principal at Riverdale High School before being named the head principal of Oakland in 2008, following the retirement of former principal Butch Vaughn.
“As a leader, you are a servant. We try to empower others around us,” Spurlock said, adding, “A lot of times, we understand our roles, and what we try to do is reinforce what we are doing and to empower others to strengthen them in their roles.”
The challenge to all those in public education, and especially in Rutherford County with its high growth rate, is meeting students where they are and then determining the best interventions to help them get to where they need to be, Spurlock said.
Spurlock has used a baseball metaphor to illustrate the situation.
“Some of our students will come to us already on first base,” Spurlock explained. “Some of our students will come to us not even in the stadium. It’s up to us to provide the support so they can make progress along the way.”
To further elaborate on that point, one of the biggest challenges facing Rutherford County’s school district is addressing students who move around a lot, Spurlock said.
“One of the things that’s concerning me in some areas is our transient population and to track and identify those areas,” he explained. “That’s a piece that not only impacts us as far as funding, but it also impacts us in accountability with achievement.”
Spurlock and the School Board have agreed to a contract that will make him director for at least the next three years. Once he begins in July, his first task will be to assess and present goals to the Board for review within the first three months.
And those goals will all come down to ensuring students — and by extension, their families — have the opportunities to prosper for generations to come.
Beyond his goals for RCS students, Spurlock has a personal stake in the school district’s performance, by way of his own family. His daughter and son are both accomplished educators in the district and those grandchildren will one day be students themselves.
Speaking of his third grandchild who’s on the way, Spurlock said he didn’t have a preference about its gender.
“To me, I don’t really care. I want a healthy baby and we look forward to it,” Spurlock said.
He made the comment prior to his family’s gender-reveal party.
As it turns out, his next grandchild will be a boy. And to make it even more special, his daughter has chosen to name her firstborn, William, after his grandfather.
PHOTOS / JAMES EVANS
Top, William "Bill" Spurlock has been named the next director of schools for Rutherford County and will begin a three-year term on July 1.
Bottom, Bill Spurlock pushes his grandson, Brody, during the community tour and ribbon-cutting ceremony for Rocky Fork Middle School during its opening in July 2018.