Jasper — “I’m having a blast.”
That’s what new Hamilton County Superintendent of Schools Thomas P. Moffses told this reporter during a recent interview, just two weeks on the job.
Moffses said his focus is on the schools and the kids. He has already visited all the schools in the district more than once and at each school he asked what the most pressing needs were. Within hours, he said, many of those needs were met.
Some other minor changes, he said, have already taken place. One of those was at North Hamilton Elementary where covered walkways (overhangs) from the portables to the main building have already been installed; an issue that came to light many months ago at a school board meeting because the students were getting soaked going back and forth every time it rained.
“There was money budgeted for that,” said Moffses.
FEMA paperwork, he explained, is still ongoing for reimbursement of costs for South Hamilton Elementary’s pre-k building that was damaged from TS Debby and eventually demolished.
When it comes time to prepare the district’s five year plan, Moffses said there are issues at each of the schools that will be addressed.
“All the schools could use improvement,” he said. “Nothing major. Those building changes are done through capital dollars. That’s not coming out of the general fund.”
Currently, Moffses and his staff are evaluating all aspects of each of the schools in the district and at this point in time, he said he does not anticipate the closing of any of the schools in the foreseeable future.
“I’m still in a research phase,” said Moffses.
As far as the dress code for students, which has been an issue for the past couple years, Moffses said, “My personal opinion is they had a dress code in place to begin with. The problem was it was not enforced.”
The dress code was instituted as a result of the requests from the principals who wanted the changes, Moffses said, so with the policy in place at all the schools, it is up to those principals to enforce it. Dress codes for teachers are governed by the teacher’s union, but Moffses said he hopes all the teachers dress in such a way that they portray a positive image.
“It should be professional dress for that position,” he said.
With regard to the proposed charter school in White Springs, Moffses said, “The application was received (Nov. 30) about four o’clock, so it was in the day before it was due.”
The charter school board had an extension to Dec. 1 to get their application in to the school district. Moffses said the application is being reviewed by a team of people throughout the district who are applicable to each content area of the application. It is the same team of people who reviewed the first application months ago.
“This is round two,” said Moffses. “They know what to look for. They’re going to write up the positives, the negatives, and at the end of that we’ll go through and make an evaluation, but we’ve got 60 days to look at that and we’re on day six.”
Moffses said if the application meets all the requirements he doesn’t see any reason why it would not be approved.
“It probably would have been approved before if it had met the criteria for submission,” he said.
If everything goes smoothly and the application is approved by the district as well as the state board of education, Moffses said he believes there is the possibility South Hamilton Elementary could go charter for the 2013-14 school year.
One of Moffses’ campaign promises has already been fulfilled. He has instituted a hiring freeze of all administrative positions until budget issues are resolved and stabilized. One exception is classroom teachers that may be needed to meet state requirements for minimum class size.
“For right now, there’s no need for any additional positions,” he said.
One upcoming change at the high school has to do with security and safety, which Moffses said should have already been in place.
“It’s not to punish anybody,” he said. “It’s a safety issue.”
Moffses said when school starts in the morning the gates are supposed to be shut. Students can always exit the facility, but the gates are locked from the outside to keep intruders out.
“That’s the way the school was designed,” he said.
Moffses said once school starts the gates are going to be locked down and any visitors must use the main entrance and sign in before being allowed elsewhere on the campus.
“If you’re leaving campus, you’re supposed to go through the main office to exit,” he said. “So, it will be single point of entry and exit, with the exception of an emergency.”
Moffses said these safety and security procedures are not new. Metal detectors, he said, were purchased years ago and were in the original design of the school. They were initially implemented back then, but were taken down and have been in storage for years. They are currently being re-calibrated, he added.
“I don’t want people to think, oh, my gosh, they’re locking it down and just targeting everybody,” said Moffses. “It’s not that way at all. It’s a safety item.”
Moffses explained that since Hamilton County is a rural community, buck knives are a common thing for many young people to carry with them, but problems arise when students try to take those knives onto campus.
“We want to make sure the kids have the safest learning environment possible,” he said. “We’re trying to protect one of the most loved things you have in your life.”
Additionally, Moffses said, before he came on board as superintendent, there were some recent drug-related incidences on campus, particularly some kids were smoking illegal drugs.
“That tells you that it’s there,” he said. “I’m not trying to control what people do at home. I wish that they wouldn’t do things like that.”
Because of these incidents Moffses said they will be working with the sheriff’s office who will run drug dogs through the campus.
“The dogs aren’t going to go sniff kids,” he said. “It’s a very controlled setting when they go through.”
The drug sniffing dogs will be authorized to go onto any Hamilton County school campus or district facility. Moffses explained that the dogs won’t be going into classrooms where the students are. The setting is controlled and the students won’t have contact with the dogs. He also said drug dogs have gone through the school district facilities in the past, but it hasn’t happened in a while.
“Parents don’t need to worry about it and I’m not saying this to scare anybody,” said Moffses. “It’s a courtesy. Can you imagine if I didn’t give you the courtesy. All I’m saying is if you have to do those things (drugs), do them somewhere else. We’d prefer you didn’t do them at all, but we definitely don’t want you doing them at school.”
Moffses reiterated at the end of the interview that he was having a blast in his new position and that he wanted to focus on the positive.
“We’ve got great students,” he said.
The younger students at North, Central and South, he said, have a tough time pronouncing his last name, so they have dubbed him Mr. Tom.
“It’s a blast,” he said. “All I hear when I’m walking around is Mr. Tom! Mr. Tom! It’s been a lot of fun to visit with them.”