by Josh Lanier
MONROE – It’s not easy keeping up with Mary Ellis.
The newly appointed Union County Schools superintendent walks fast and talks even faster.
Ellis, 53, the current deputy superintendent, is a self-proclaimed Type-A personality, who less solves problems and more attacks them. It’s a work ethic she picked up while working on her father’s farm in the Piedmont area and she’s taken that sense of urgency and responsibility to just about every level possible in the school system.
“I usually fall asleep when I’ve hit that point of pure exhaustion,” she joked.
That pace is partly the reason she was chosen for the school’s top job. Beyond her bona fides – a Ph. D in education, 33 years working in the Union County system and numerous local and state awards – she’s a woman who impressed the board of education with her tenacity, board members said. She doesn’t shy away from a fight when it’s something she believes in.
The Union County School system is currently embattled in a heated debate as state and federal funding for schools has been cut by $9.6 million. This has left the board of education and Union County commissioners snipping at one another over extra local funds to cover the gap.
Ellis has stayed out of the fray for most of the discussions, allowing current Superintendent Ed Davis to handle talks through June 30 when he will retire.
But when asked about her feelings on the county funding $6.7 million to save as many as 350 teacher assistant jobs, she was unequivocal.
“Those teacher assistants are the ones who are there to help those struggling students to catch those students who may lag behind and need a little extra help,” she said. “I taught reading for 18 years and saw first-hand how necessary those little interactions with a student who is falling behind are. They are invaluable at what they do … And we need them.”
Ellis fell into teaching. Her grandmother taught her to read at an early age and she fell in love with it. When she enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte she followed her heart and became an English major, finishing the four-year program in a little more than two years. It was during those years she felt the calling to become a teacher.
“There’s something special when you connect with a child like that,” she said. “When you reach them, there is something there that is very powerful.”
Ellis said she doesn’t expect much to change after she takes over as superintendent. In fact, she hopes to take away some of the burden from teachers. She feels there are too many state and federal mandates teachers must go through that keeps them away from the classroom.
“The federal or state government might add more to their plate, but not Dr. Ellis,” she said.
When not speeding through the hallways of the school district’s office, Ellis is an avid gardener and enjoys three-mile walks where she can clear her mind.
Her three children all attended Union County Public Schools. Her oldest, Ben, is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Dan, her middle child, stayed closer to home and farms with Tyson Foods. And her daughter Mary Anna will graduate from Piedmont High School in a few weeks to attend Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.
Ellis said family is the most important part of her life. Last week, when she received the call she would become superintendent, a few moments later her granddaughter Abby took her first steps.
“I don’t know what I was more happy about,” she said
Ellis will inherit a school system with a great deal of pride. It’s first in the state for graduation rates for large school systems. Students generally perform above state averages of standardized testing and schools rarely seem to have a problem recruiting parent volunteers.
Expectations are high for her, and she said she’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m not perfect, and I’ll never claim to be,” she said. “I’m going to make some mistakes but I’ll tell you when I do and we’ll learn from them. The only thing I ask for is civility because when you lose that, you’ve lost sight of our mission of caring for our children.”