Williams to retire as PG Schools superintendent; Pennycuff named successor

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: April 29, 2019 | 11:08 a.m.

  • School Board opts to promote from within for leadership positions
  • Pennycuff to begin as new superintendent July 1
  • Bill Barnes to transition to interim assistant superintendent role 
  • Current Moore MS principal Stephanie Bishop to become new director of secondary instruction

PRINCE GEORGE –  Late last week and during a special emergency school board meeting Monday, it was confirmed Prince George County Public Schools’ superintendent Renee Williams will be retiring from the position she has served in since her appointment in 2015, with her successor being formally announced as current school division assistant superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff.

That announcement was made during a special meeting Monday inside the county school board office as several dozen staff members assembled to hear brief remarks from Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox, Jr. regarding the future of the school division’s leadership positions as Williams prepares to retire effective August 1. During the near half-hour called meeting, Cox confirmed their decision to name Pennycuff as Prince George County Public Schools’ next superintendent, whose slated to move into the role beginning July 1, allowing for a transition period from Williams to Pennycuff.

During his remarks, Cox said the school board “heightened their commitment to developing leadership and building succession planning” since 2015 following Williams’ decision to forgo her planned retirement at that time to serve as district superintendent after the resignation of former division leader Dr. Bobby Browder. At that time, Williams served as the leader of a new team of superintendents, with Pennycuff joining as assistant superintendent of accountability and instruction and Dr. Patrick Bingham as assistant superintendent of administration, personnel, and operations, a position he has since vacated.

“After a career in education that has spanned four decades, the school board is thankful for her additional years she gave the division and we wish her a long, happy, and healthy retirement,” Cox said. “We will always be grateful for the years she spent working to make a difference for the children of Prince George.”

Late last week, Williams reflected on her nearly 50 years in education following the announcement of her retirement plans.

“I decided to retire because after 48 years and at age 70… it was time for me to spend more time with family and to travel,” Williams said candidly. “Tomorrow is not promised and I wanted to do those things while my husband, my mother and I are in good health.”

She continued, “I have had a wonderful career in education. From the time I decided to become a teacher in the 5th grade at Bessie H. Mason Elementary school in Disputanta up until now, I have never regretted making this my career.  I have enjoyed every single moment.”

Standing next to Williams as she listened to Cox’s remarks about her decorated career in Prince George County was assistant superintendent Pennycuff, who received a warm embrace and applause from fellow employees after the school board chair officially named her the incoming superintendent beginning July 1.

Prince George School Board names Dr. Lisa Pennycuff (middle) next superintendent of schools as current superintendent Renee Williams (left) prepares to retire this August. Pennycuff will start the job on July 1. (Michael Campbell)

“Dr. Pennycuff’s service includes 27 years of educational experience and instructional leadership, professional development, leadership coaching, and development,” Cox remarked. “She has served as a classroom teacher, a learning specialist, assistant principal, principal, director of accountability and instructional services, and in her current role as assistant superintendent of accountability and instruction for Prince George County Public Schools.”

He continued, “She has earned Bachelors of Arts in Education from Queens College, a Masters of Education in special education from The College of William and Mary, and an educational specialist degree in educational leadership and administration from George Washington University, and her doctorate in educational policy planning and leadership from The College of William and Mary.”

Speaking on behalf of the board during Monday’s meeting, Cox said they were extremely impressed with the quality of the work done by Pennycuff during her four years as assistant superintendent, which helped in their decision to appoint her as the school division’s next permanent superintendent.

“During the four years we have been able to work directly with her, we have found her to be a hands-on leader with the ability to lead and inspire high-performing teams while developing and maintaining great relationships built on trust,” he remarked. “She is an education leader who is committed to the success of all children.”

In addition to Pennycuff’s promotion, two other positions will see current staff transition into new roles with the school division. Bill Barnes, a longtime PGCPS employee who has worked for the division since the 1970s and the current director of secondary education will move into Pennycuff’s former role come July as interim assistant superintendent for accountability and instruction.

“Mr. Barnes has a long-standing history in the community as working to do what is best for all children and we believe that Mr. Barnes will serve the faculty, students, and staff well in this role,” Cox said.

With that transition for Barnes, Stephanie Bishop, a PGCPS employee since 1997 and current principal of J.E.J. Moore Middle School was named the new director of secondary instruction, completing the adjustments to the leadership team in the school division.

“Her leadership has inspired faculty and staff to increase student engagement by meeting students, be it academically, socially, or emotionally,” Chairman Cox said. “Through her efforts and instructional initiatives, such as the implementation of the tiered system of supports and priority-based learning has provided students with the opportunity to build skills within and beyond the content, in areas such as communication, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and citizenship.”

Following the wrap-up of the meeting, amidst the hugs and well wishes among the school division’s staff to Pennycuff, Barnes, and Bishop, Cox said the trio of appointments tells a story about the priorities of Prince George County Public Schools.

Prince George School Board member Chris Johnson shares his thoughts on Monday’s announcements with several dozen school employees assembled during Monday’s meeting. (Michael Campbell)

“This shows our commitment to Prince George… we hire from within wherever we can,” he remarked. “We have set ourselves up to where we train our people internally and we are able to move them up. It is obvious the connections they have with the employees in the schools that this is going to fair well for Prince George. Dr. Pennycuff came to us highly recommended by Dr. Steve Staples, the state’s former superintendent for public instruction, and it is great for us that she came here.”

Cox continued, “Mr. Barnes is home-grown and has been with us for a long time. He has always had a special connection with the kids and parents here. And you can’t say enough about Ms. Bishop, she has been one who has always been right there for the kids, from her time as a theatre arts teacher to her time as principal of J.E.J. Moore Middle School.”

Prior to Monday morning’s meeting, Cox had opened up about Williams’ plans to retire and what the school board’s next steps would be, noting they planned to discuss the matter at their next meeting, which was last Thursday and expected to have some direction on their plans by their next regular meeting in mid-May. At that time, he said, when asked about how far along the board was in their discussions, that “There has been a little bit of conversation, but we haven’t gotten into anything deep yet.”

“In the coming weeks, I expect that we will be meeting and discussing some actions and looking at which way we want to go and how we want to proceed and get something together by our meeting in May,” Cox said last week.

After he requested the matter be added to their meeting agenda last week, Cox said Monday the board felt they were able to move forward now on naming Williams’ successor without performing a search for candidates outside of the school division, which is a common task many school systems perform as part of a search for either an interim or permanent superintendent, such as in Dinwiddie County in 2017 before the eventual promotion from within of Dr. Kari Weston to the position.

“When we got to talking about it, we realized we don’t really need to go anywhere else because we have the people we need here,” Cox remarked. “We just needed to shuffle some people around and, what this does now is it gives us the opportunity to bring in more people and start grooming them. It is always better to move someone from within your system to take a position because they already know and have been here, and they know all the nuances. It bodes well for us to have depth on the bench, as they say.”

Regarding searches, another element sometimes seen during a search for a superintendent is the garnering of community feedback, be it through surveys, town hall meetings, and the like.  In Dinwiddie County, their school division worked with the Virginia School Board Association as part of their search and, one element of their aid involved the creation, distribution, and compiling of data from a survey from community stakeholders whose results were used as a guide to understanding priorities from various segments of the school division’s community, like teachers, staff, students, and residents as a whole.

When asked last week, Cox said community feedback was something they would “have to look at from the board perspective and see collectively as a group” and see if a majority of the board feels gathering that feedback “is needed” and what the best method of gathering it would be.

Prince George School Board members Kevin Foster and Chris Johnson share a laugh with Superintendent Renee Williams and school division staff prior to Monday morning’s meeting. (Michael Campbell)

Following the news of Williams’ retirement, some in the community believed community feedback needed to be instrumental in the selection of a new superintendent in the school division.

“Since hiring a superintendent is one of the most important things a school division does outside of creating an annual budget, the process should be as transparent as possible, give the public opportunities to have input, be at least state-wide, and have a search committee that represents various stakeholders from the schools and community,” Disputanta resident and parent Sharon Jadrnak remarked. “Several other school divisions in Central Virginia have recently searched for and hired new superintendents, and some of the approaches they have taken include using a consultant and collecting community input via surveys, meetings, interviews, and focus groups.”

Monday, after their announcement of Pennycuff’s promotion, only weeks after Williams’ confirmed her plans to retire, Cox addressed the concerns of some parents who feel they did not have an opportunity to give their thoughts as the future of the school division’s leadership, with some parents feeling the school board “had already chosen” who Williams’ replacement will be well before Monday morning’s meeting.

“We are tasked as board members and elected officials to do what is best for the school division, and I think that, for the majority of our residents in the county with school-aged kids, they will see what we have done as a positive,” Cox said. “This saves money and time. We already have the talent here that can move us forward. When you bring in someone from outside that you never really have known anything about other than what you have heard, it is harder to mold that person to what you need.”

“With Dr. Pennycuff, we have had her for four years, we know her and she has gotten to know our system and the expectations of Prince George County,” he continued. “This is a win-win for everybody and, when you start getting into a search, there is an expense to it. I hope people understand what we have done is taken someone who has been tried and tested, we have gotten a chance to get to know her, she has gotten to know us and coming off of a recommendation from Dr. Staples, that carries a lot of weight, being he was a former employee here himself and he is very well respected across the Commonwealth.”

Applause and hugs weren’t hard to come by during Monday’s special meeting as Stephanie Bishop, current J.E.J. Moore principal, was embraced by fellow employees as she was named the next director of secondary instruction for the school division. (Michael Campbell)

Cox added that the circumstances of Williams’ 2015 appointment to the position of superintendent helped get to this point where Pennycuff will be moving into the role come July, as, in his eyes, Williams was essentially training the next leader of Prince George Public Schools.

“The hope is whenever you have a superintendent, he or she is developing the next replacement so when he or she walks out of the door, someone is already there,” he said. “You can go outside and bring in outside talent, and sometimes, that is the way to do it but, I don’t think, in this instance, it was the way to do it. We had the team here… the next step was to rotate them.”

With the appointments and personnel changes now final, Williams, always with a smile, said she is forever grateful for the experiences afforded to her during her time with Prince George County Public Schools as she approaches her last few months at the helm.

“I am both humbled and appreciative of the school board for giving me the opportunity to be someone I never dreamed of, a superintendent,” Williams said as she reflected on her career in Prince George. “There are so many people who have been instrumental in my success. People who saw what I could be and gave me the encouragement and the opportunity.”

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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