Dr. Bill Mathis retires after 61 years in education


BILL MATHIS ON his last day at RNESU.

BRANDON–William Jefferson Mathis, PhD, retired from education officially and finally on March 1, 2024 due to a chronic illness. Many of our readers will remember him from his time as the superintendent of schools in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNESU), a position he held for 27 years. This alone was a remarkable achievement, as the average Vermont superintendent’s tenure has a duration of 4 years. But it is not the only claim to fame of this soft-spoken Tennessean. 

Dr. Mathis has done national and state work in the field of education policy. He has published or presented research on finance, assessment, accountability, standards, cost-effectiveness, education reform, history, and constitutional issues. He has co-edited several books and has been featured in several periodicals. His national work has gotten a great deal of recognition. Mathis was the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado from his retirement from RNESU in 2009 until 2019. He then became a Senior National Policy Advisor. Working from his office in the McKernon building on the old Training School campus in Brandon, he was surrounded by plaques and medals celebrating his contributions to the field. He is the former president of The Horace Mann League, which advocates that “public education is the cornerstone of democracy.” The League presented him their OutstandingPublic Educator Award at their annual meeting in 2018. Mathis was commended as a National Citizen for Education as a consistent national advocate in education. He was a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year from the American Association of School Administrators 

Mathis’s state work includes 10 years on the Vermont Board of Education. He has written op-eds regularly for 22 newspapers, including the Burlington Free Press, The Rutland Herald, and The Barre Times Argus. Many were published nationally. State awards include Superintendent of the Year in 2003, Frederick Tuttle Service Award in 2002, and the John Dewey Award from the Vermont Society for the Study of Education in 2007. The Vermont Alliance for Arts Education presented the 1990-91 Administrator Award to Dr. William Mathis in recognition of his commitment to excellence in arts education.

As an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont, Dr. Mathis taught an annual class in educational administration to new superintendents in our state. During the 10 in-person class days, Mathis would invite guests including governors and even state supreme court justices to meet with his class and discuss current issues in education.

In 2012 and 2013, Dr. Mathis wrote the annual update for education for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Dr. Mathis admits to making a few mistakes in his career and thinks he may have hurt a few people. “They were mistakes of being human” said Mathis. He regrets these mistakes.

During Mathis’s tenure at RNESU from 1982 until 2009, he attended over 3,600 school board meetings, many of which finished at 11pm or midnight. He considered these meetings “not survival but a duty.” His school boards included Otter Valley UHS, Brandon, Pittsford, Leicester, Sudbury, Whiting, Chittenden, Mendon, and RNESU. Mathis worked to find solutions to needs and dilemmas that were individual to a particular community. “The same solution may not work for the schools in Whiting and Chittenden” he said. Bill takes great pride in the fact that two of his successors were also his students: Jeanne Collins and John Castle. Dr. Mathis supervised close to 100 principals over his tenure at RNESU. His major admonition to these administrators was “You have to be very careful with money.”

DR. BILL MATHIS in his office in Brandon. He’s retiring this year after 61 years as an educator, including a remarkable 27-year tenure as superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. Along the way, he’s written numerous books and articles on education and racked up many awards and accolades for his work.

Mathis was hired as superintendent at RNESU in 1982. Upon arriving in Brandon at the Ayrshire Building, Dr. Mathis found a real friend in Lois Fjeld, the circulating school nurse for the supervisory union. They worked out of the same office and she was one of the few employees who went to all the schools. Mathis has very proud memories of former OV music teacher Steve Morse, who took the Otter Valley band and chorus to Carnegie Hall in New York City. “From little Brandon all the way to Carnegie” he said. He’s also proud of Ray Miro, whom he refers to as a saint, for recruiting, helping, and nurturing kids from all backgrounds through his superb wrestling program. 

William Jefferson Mathis, PhD was born and brought up in Tennessee, the great-grandson of William Anderson Mathis, who was a Union Army cavalry sergeant in a Confederate world. W. A. Mathis was forced to sneak out of Tennessee in the night to join the Union Army. After the war, he spent his time building community in east Tennessee, where the family and most of their neighbors practiced subsistence farming. Sergeant Mathis’s son and Dr. Mathis’s grandfather, William Jefferson Mathis, earned his teaching certificate in Hancock County, TN. The family subsequently moved to Knoxville, where Dr. Mathis was born. 

Dr. Mathis was learning to build and repair vacuum tube radios in high school when his plan was unexpectedly derailed. His brother brought home a 9-transistor radio, making his anticipated occupation as radio repairman a non-starter. That moved him from the first floor to the fourth floor of his high school, where he could pursue an academic program which readied him for college. Mathis attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for $75 per quarter and was in the ROTC. From 1963 to 1967, Mathis worked as a guidance counselor, school psychologist, and long-term substitute in Tennessee while working on his master’s degree. Mathis said, “I got my commission, my master’s degree and my Camaro convertible in March 1967 and never looked back.”  He volunteered and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Air Force in 1967. During his four years on active duty he got a few plum assignments, including studying computers in Santa Monica, California and teaching psychology at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. His master’s thesis focused on peak experiences and self-actualization. He based a lot of this work on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Mathis found a significant connection later when a mom stood up at a school board meeting and said she wanted the school to help her raise her son to be a contributing member of society and a loving father and husband, basically a good man.

After the Air Force, Mathis finished his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. There he met the famous atheist, Madeline Murray O’Hair. For his dissertation he studied the students of Eagle Pass, Texas and wrote, “Learning of political attitudes and values of Hispanic children.” He then spent time with UNESCO in Paris and at the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro.

Mathis’s next stint was Deputy Assistant Commissioner with the New Jersey Department of Education, where he pursued his fascination with statistics and developed a state-wide testing system, eventually testing 440,000 students each year. He then helped implement student testing in all 50 states. Mathis got into the educational equity business when NJ inequitably distributed $50 million of compensatory education dollars to already succeeding schools instead of poor performing ones. “I worked at getting it right,” said Mathis. This solution was borrowed by the federal government and applied to $4 billion (with a b)  and is much larger now.  It is known as Title I.

Mathis moved to Vermont in 1982, following his young daughter Alexandra as her mother had accepted a position at Dartmouth College. He lived for a short time in Pittsford before moving to Goshen which he likes for its “solitariness and tight social connections.”

The educational equity issue followed Mathis to Vermont when he was to be the primary witness in the Brigham case, brought by a Whiting resident and others against Vermont to force the state to provide an equal education/opportunity throughout the state. The Vermont Supreme Court case was settled the evening before the trial and Mathis did not have to testify. His questioner would have been present U.S. Senator Peter Welch. Brandonite Mitchell Pearl was also on the case. Interestingly, Mathis relates, the towns of Brandon and Pittsford were involved in the educational reform movement of the 1850’s: “Common Schools.” Both towns invited students from outlying areas to “educational conferences.” Pittsford, notably, invited students from across the state while Brandon was more regional.

Mathis continues to live in Goshen enjoying the solitude of rural life and his townwide connections. He is the chairman of the Goshen select board. You may see him driving his vintage Camaro convertible around town any day now as well as in the Independence Day Parade in July!

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