Behind the Scenes of the Superintendent Search
Updated: Feb 7
By Brooklyn Toney and Emma Duncan--Eagle Staff Writer and Eagle Editor
After serving as superintendent of Franklin County Public Schools for just over three years, Dr. Bernice Cobbs has announced that she’s stepping down from her position, meaning it’s now up to the school board to decide who will lead the division into its future.
Dr. Cobbs has been a familiar face in the division since she became an elementary school teacher in 1998. As she rose through the ranks from elementary school principal to middle school administrator and principal to Director of Instruction, many told Dr. Cobbs along her journey that she was meant to become superintendent. Nevertheless, Dr. Cobbs recalled putting a lot of preparation into applying for the position of superintendent, which is a seemingly strenuous process.
“I went to the Virginia School Board Association (VSBA) and downloaded the criteria [and] the expectations of the job because I wanted it to match my skill set and my experience to see if I even had a chance,” Dr. Cobbs stated.
The superintendent application includes two essays, copies of transcripts from one’s alma maters, proof of licensure, and a curriculum vitae. Once Dr. Cobbs completed these steps, she waited to find out if the school board would call her in for an official interview, but instead of just standing by, Dr. Cobbs used the time to go through several mock interviews and coaching sessions with retired and practicing superintendents.
“May I use the word intense? OMG,” Dr. Cobbs admitted. “I took it very seriously. Just because I was from Franklin County, I didn’t think that they were just going to hand this job to me. Matter of fact, I worked harder because I had not been a superintendent before [and] I wanted all my ducks in a row.”
After going through her official interview and getting her acceptance call, Dr. Cobbs entered her new position under extremely challenging circumstances; this was December 2020, the height of the COVID pandemic.
“We were one of the first divisions to bring our students back to school and that slow transition I’m very proud of because kids need to be in school,” Dr. Cobbs said. “Our school board had to make some hard decisions, and I’m very proud that while everyone may not have agreed, we made those hard decisions.”
After schools began to return to normalcy, Dr. Cobbs was able to return to what brought her to the position in the first place: connecting with and serving students.
“I love the students. I want and desire for your success and that’s why we’re doing projects in the background that you may not see,” she elaborated. “The compensation studies we’re working on, having quality people in the classroom, the HVAC [construction] at the middle school, and the CTE [construction], all of these initiatives, it’s all about you all.”
Being a superintendent isn't just about new projects and initiatives. Dr. Cobbs says it's also about keeping stakeholders and partners in the loop.
“I’m proud of the communication between staff, schools, and the community. Communication is key,” Dr. Cobbs explained. "I meet every month with the FCEA, the Superintendent’s Advisory Council … and the Department of Social Services. I meet every week with our central office staff [going over] what we need to focus on [and] what I’m missing.”
While Dr. Cobbs can’t fully prepare the next superintendent for all the responsibilities that being a superintendent entails, she does have some advice to offer.
“Regardless of who it is, keep the students and the staff in the forefront of every decision we make,” she recommended. “Franklin County is unique in its own way because it’s very community-oriented. Get out, get to know people. Remember there are smaller communities within the county, so just understand those communities and be a part of them whenever [you] can.”
Dr. Cobbs’ last official day is June 30, but the search for the new superintendent search has already begun. This is the only hire that the school board makes for the division, and it has previously proven to be a lengthy process. To select a new superintendent, the board has partnered with the VSBA, which most divisions across the state use for searches like this. The VSBA’s job is to collect applicants who meet their criteria and encourage them to apply directly to Franklin County’s open position. Visit the Code of Virginia and the Administrative Code for more information regarding superintendent appointment and selection criteria.
“Then we will go through every single application and get a more defined list of 10-15 individuals who we want to interview … and then [vote] on who is the best applicant,” Dr. Kevin David, Member at Large for the board, described. “I do expect 25-30 applicants.”
As Dr. David was only elected a year ago, this will be his first time selecting a superintendent, but since Chairman Jeff Worley has been a board member for five years, he has prior experience through hiring Dr. Cobbs. Both members expressed similar qualities that they hope to see in the next superintendent, including having a doctorate and experience at both primary and secondary levels, preferably within the county.
“Franklin County’s needs might be different from what other counties need in terms of services and relationships with students and families. Dr. Cobbs had built those relationships over a number of years and I think it helped us a lot, especially through COVID,” Worley explained, “but some people will tell you it’s always good to get a fresh set of eyes.
The idea that new perspectives might be what Franklin County Public Schools needs is shared by other citizens in the division and the community. “I think sometimes new leadership is good,” said Brenda Muse, Director of Curriculum and Instruction. “Sometimes we can get too complacent in what we’re doing. New leadership is an opportunity for all of us to grow and expand, and have new visions.”
When the last superintendent search was underway, Muse and several other members in the community took part in a superintendent selection survey where they listed qualities they’d hope to see applied in office. This year, a similar survey was sent out for Franklin County residents to complete by February 6. While this added time and effort to the search, Worley viewed this as a necessary step.
After already having a couple of meetings to compile their thoughts, the school board finds itself in a waiting room until applications begin rolling in.
“I think we’re on schedule to make an early decision. You would be surprised by how many times in closed sessions we’ve sat down and talked and agreed on something unanimously. I think this will be a similar situation here,” Dr. David shared. “It probably won’t be revealed when it’s made because of course we want to give the new superintendent as much preparation as possible.”
As Dr. David mentioned, the superintendent search process is mostly completed through closed-session meetings. The board members are seemingly confident and ready for their interviews to begin. However, if they truly had their way, Dr. Cobbs would still be superintendent.
“We tried to talk Dr. Cobbs out of retiring. We all think she is wonderful, but we understand she’s going to retire. We’re going to miss her, but that is kind of in my mind what we’re looking for, someone just like her,” Dr. David concluded.