Dean Gilbert says he believes in keeping things simple.
Since he began his tenure as the new superintendent of Patrick County Schools on Jan. 2, this longtime educator and Fieldale native says he is not out to make big changes to the way the district runs. For now, he’s all about “keeping the main thing the main thing.”
And what is the main thing? Simple: “Our job is to educate, and keep students and staff safe while they’re here with us,” Gilbert said.
The Patrick County School Board announced Gilbert’s selection in December to a burst of applause and cheers from meeting attendees. He was offered a contract until June 30, 2023, wrapping up a 6-month search process for a new school division leader.
Gilbert succeeds former superintendent Bill Sroufe, who departed in June 2019 to take another position. J. David Martin served as acting superintendent from July through December.
As he begins the new year in a new role, Gilbert’s plans include “just doing what we can to make sure every student succeeds and reaches their full potential,” he said. “Same with our staff — we want them to be happy and successful in whatever they do.”
Having worked for Patrick County Schools since 1999, Gilbert has done “a little bit of everything.” Most recently he served as assistant superintendent of operations for the past 12 years, overseeing the division’s human resources, maintenance, finance, food service, adult education, and other areas.
Two of the main strengths of Patrick County Schools are “the staff and the community. There are really good people here,” he said. “Seeing your staff in action and knowing they’re just phenomenal is rewarding.”
Asked about his goals as superintendent, Gilbert said, “We’ve got to stay accredited.” That means “keeping us on track where we’ve been instructionally” and “staying ahead of regulations,” he said.
“Instruction is going great. If things are working, you tweak — you don’t change,” he said.
For the next few months, the school budgeting process will be a major part of Gilbert’s work. Gov. Ralph Northam announced his 2-year budget proposal in December, including $1.2 billion in state funds for public K-12 education and nearly $95 million for preschool programs across Virginia.
If Northam’s plan is approved, documents from the Virginia Board of Education show that Patrick County Schools could get an additional $1.25 million as part of a new “equity fund.” However, Gilbert said he is not celebrating yet — the budget must now go through the General Assembly for approval.
“From what I’ve seen so far, yes, it looks like we will get more state money,” he said, adding, “I say that skeptically, because you never know what will happen in the legislature.”
Patrick County Schools will invite public input on school budget priorities at its next school board meeting on Thursday. Another public input session likely will be held in March, before the board approves the budget for fiscal year 2021.
Budget-wise, “we’re still formulating our priorities,” Gilbert said. However, he does have a wish list in mind if funding allows.
“We always want to look at pay raises. That’s something I would like to see for our employees,” he said. “We have not been able to do a lot of capital projects. We have some paving that needs to be done.”
The bulk of state funding depends on the number of students in the district, known as average daily membership. Gilbert said there are currently about 2,200 students in Patrick County Schools. “At one time, we had between 2,500 and 2,600. Just like everyone else has been, we’re trending downwards” in terms of student population, he said.
Many people assume Gilbert comes from Patrick County because he and his wife have lived there for almost 25 years, he said, but he actually grew up in Henry County. His parents, Ann and Eddie Gilbert, live in Fieldale.
Gilbert said he did not originally set out to become a teacher. He earned a bachelor’s in economics and business from Emory and Henry, with concentrations in accounting and business management, and worked in the private sector for a few years after college before making a career change.
He started his education career teaching business, first at Magna Vista High School from 1995 to 1997, then at his old high school, Fieldale-Collinsville. Gilbert next worked as assistant principal at Patrick County High School from 1999 to 2003 and principal of Meadows of Dan Elementary School until 2006, when he moved to the district’s Central Office.
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.