Whitfield County Schools superintendent knows the needs of children exist beyond the classroom

·5 min read

Dec. 17—With student services among the departments under Mike Ewton's purview when he was assistant school superintendent, all referrals to the Division of Family and Children Services from Whitfield County Schools came through his office, and "I made sure to read every one, because it wasn't just a number to me."

"It was a sobering reminder to me that while some kids have everything they need at home, many of them don't," which is why his overarching philosophy for Whitfield County Schools is "the whole school community supporting the whole child," said Ewton, who was sworn in as Whitfield County Schools superintendent July 1.

Schools can "no longer just teach the classroom pieces and leave it at that, because students have a lot of needs schools need to support with wraparound services," from food and clothing to counseling.

Whitfield County Schools already supports students significantly, as do the communities that surround the schools in the system, but "I'd like to expand that even more" as superintendent, said Ewton, who replaced Judy Gilreath as superintendent when she retired June 30. "Even if you don't have kids in (the school system), you have a vested interest in the schools if you're a taxpayer, and if you live here, you want a strong school system, because that helps attract businesses to the community and (educates) a trained workforce locally."

After a stint in the U.S. Army, Ewton's eight years with the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office as a deputy sheriff helped propel him toward the education field.

"In law enforcement, you often see people at their worst, and I'd see kids who were victims, witnesses, and even sometimes offenders," said Ewton, who has been with Whitfield County Schools for 17 years. "I knew if I was going to make a real difference, I had to get into the education realm" to reach children before they got to a point where law enforcement was involved, because "you can't arrest your way out of these problems."

Though he lived in Catoosa County as a child, Ewton is a product of Whitfield County Schools, since that's where his mother, Lelia Mullis, taught.

Whitfield County Schools "was home," he said. "That was where my friends were, and, as a kid, that is your world."

His aunts also taught in the school system, and his daughters, Morgan Elder and Chelsea Ewton — the latter is a teacher at Dawnville Elementary — and parents attended schools in the Whitfield County Schools system, so "I definitely have a vested interest" in the system, he said. Naturally, "there's a lot of pride involved" to be superintendent.

His first day, however, Ewton "felt like I was in somebody else's office, but once the phone starts ringing and you get to work you're up and running," he said. "We were definitely blessed as far as transitions go — if you have an abrupt change, everyone has to scramble — and the leadership team here has been together so long that we're continuing with business."

"The biggest change for me is I don't walk down the hall to (the superintendent's office) to get an answer anymore," he said. "I'll walk down the hall to get information and input, but the buck stops here."

In the future, the school system will have to be even more aggressive in recruiting teachers than previously, Gilreath said.

"I just don't see young people getting into teaching like they used to," and during her tenure, she noticed "it was harder to find teachers, not just in math, which was always tough, but in (areas) like special education."

"We have a teacher pipeline with Dalton State College and others, and we want not just the best teachers, but a very diverse group of teachers" to serve a diverse student body, Ewton said. "We want to be a system (teachers) want to come work in, whether they're from this region or not."

Facilities will also be a priority going forward, because the school system has several old buildings that are "very expensive to maintain," Gilreath said. "We don't get enough funding from the state, and I don't know what we'd do if not for ESPLOST (Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds)."

A SPLOST is a 1% sales tax on most goods sold in a county, and school systems typically use their version to finance work like renovating current schools and building new ones.

"If we didn't have ESPLOST we wouldn't even be able to maintain our existing buildings, much less do renovations or repairs," Ewton said. "We have aging infrastructure, and they're things you don't see, like roofs, air conditioning and plumbing, but you certainly know it if you're in a building where your roof is leaking."

Buildings are like "living organisms," Ewton said. In the same manner a person can eat healthy, exercise, avoid bad habits and be proactive with screenings and exams, or wait for a "catastrophic event and then hope major surgery works," preventative maintenance on structures is typically a better option that waiting for expensive failures.

That's why Ewton hopes to spend more caring for buildings on the front end in hopes of avoiding monumental expenses on the back end, he said. ESPLOST funds help with that, and the school system hopes to use some of the $26 million from the federal American Rescue Plan for roof and air conditioning maintenance.

"We have 2,300 air conditioning units in the district, and (those are) the job of two full-time people," Ewton said. "That's all they do every day, but two people (for) 2,300 air conditioners doesn't go very far."

"We're very grateful" for American Rescue Plan and ESPLOST funds, because those funds "free up other funds for us to go farther down our facility needs list, but it still doesn't come close to covering it," he said. "We have a lot of aging buildings and needs."

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