Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

On the record with Superintendent Catherine Truitt: ‘I have zero regrets’

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Superintendent Catherine Truitt and I sat down for a conversation last week at EdNC’s annual retreat with our board, strategic council, and team.

I think Truitt and I first met when EdNC held our student town hall in February 2020 in Edgecombe County ahead of that year’s election.

Abdur, one of Principal Matt Bristow-Smith’s students who we had the privilege to get to know, asked the then-candidates for superintendent, “who are you” over and over — and over and over again. We learned from local school leaders that this is a customary way of getting to know each other better in that district.

The only time students clapped for a candidate during the town hall was during Truitt’s remarks.

“Who are you?”

“I am Catherine,” she said, and so it began.

She can add to her list now. She is an elected official. She is our state superintendent. She is a team builder.

It has been my privilege to get to know Truitt through our reporting, to meet her family at her swearing in, which she chose to hold at a public school, and to work with the leadership team she recruited to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

Through visits to schools statewide and on working groups, I have been able to watch her work and lead.

I learned a lot.

Professionally, it was helpful to have a real opportunity to get to know Truitt as a human, a mom, and a leader, and to see firsthand how she shows up in the world. It informed our reporting, and it helped me answer questions about her choices, actions, and decisions.

She led the department and our public schools through and out of the pandemic — the toughest challenge I can remember our system of education facing in my career, managing an unprecedented influx of federal dollars.

This was Truitt’s first elected position and the first time she had governed. Thank goodness she is a learner and a quick study.

On the good days and the not so good days, Truitt was available and straight with me.

When she wanted to hire our senior reporter, Alex Granados, she called me first, and I remember where I took the call on the side of the road in Haywood County.

When she and the State Board of Education wanted to hire Rupen Fofaria, she reached out again.

I believe Truitt grounded her decision-making in what is best for students, and any superintendent will bump into the same challenges she did in doing that with fidelity.

Keep reading to see how Truitt is reflecting on her four years as superintendent — and what’s to come in this year’s election.

The conversation

So break it down for us. What does the job of superintendent really look like day to day?

“The last four years have been a privilege,” Truitt said.

She said each day is different, and “it is in an incredibly intense job most days.”

She thinks of the role like the budget with recurring and nonrecurring responsibilities. For example, the monthly State Board of Education meetings, she said, are recurring. “One state board meeting ends, and you’re already the next day getting ready for the next state board meeting,” she said.

Also included in the bucket of recurring responsibilities, she said, is the never-ending reporting mandated by the legislature. She remains curious whether anybody reads all of those reports.

Truitt said there’s also a lot of administrative work as a state superintendent, and she mentioned the signing of human resource, finance, and expenditure-related documents. That was compounded during her tenure, she said, with the management and distribution of $6.5 billion in federal funds for COVID relief.

But then there are — and she lit up as she described — the nonrecurring responsibilities, like going to the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) with educators, school visits, and going to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress.

You can see in the photo below, she really loved that part of the job.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt celebrates with Principal Aisa Cunningham, who was named a Milken Educator. Courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

She referenced what she learned working for Gov. Pat McCrory as the senior education advisor, noting that she thinks she “escaped from that role during such a difficult time in our state’s history with HB2” because she never turned down a meeting.

“I met with anyone who asked to meet,” she said. And while her DPI team eventually told her she couldn’t do that as state superintendent because she would just be in meetings all day everyday, she said being willing to meet with people who you might not agree with is really important.

Truitt said it was confusing for people from outside North Carolina who don’t understand our governance structure. She shared her answer to them: “The answer is actually no, there’s absolutely nothing I can do for you, but I’ll meet with you anyway.”

“It’s a lot of meetings, it’s a lot of listening,” she said. “Sometimes I’m playing defense, sometimes I’m playing offense. It’s a very, very difficult job, unless you just come in and sit back and let everyone else do everything around you, and that’s just not who I am.”

The superintendent has to work with the State Board of Education, the legislature, manage DPI, and work with 115 superintendents. How did you triage these stakeholder relationships?

Truitt is proud of how she managed these relationships, and there are lessons to be learned for any future superintendent in her strategy.

“I would not have been able to do it if it weren’t for my team,” she said. “I knew coming in I needed to hire people who were experts with different audiences.”

Truitt hired Jamey Falkenbury, who had previously worked with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, as director of government affairs. “No one had better relationships with the legislature,” Truitt said.

Truitt’s deputy superintendents had all served as district superintendents, she said.

Truitt created three positions: (1) for principal engagement, hiring Tabari Wallace; (2) for teacher engagement, hiring Julie Pittman; and (3) for workforce engagement, hiring Kristie VanAuken.

When people questioned prioritizing workforce engagement, Truitt said, “it’s not that I had a crystal ball, but I’ve just been so interested in the intersection of K-12 education and workforce development.”

But it was like she had a crystal ball, given that in the work of EdNC, the N.C. Chamber, and the N.C. Community College System, workforce preparedness consistently is a top priority for the people of North Carolina and a state that loves its ranking as #1 for business.

Truitt hired Michael Maher — who had also run for state superintendent in the Democratic primary — to be the executive director of the Office of Learning Recovery and Research. “The Department of Public Instruction,” Truitt said, “has never had a research arm, which is kind of crazy.”

Truitt leveraged federal dollars to create and staff the office with researchers, including Jeni Corn, who was respected in districts statewide from her years conducting research and evaluation at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

She hired Blair Ellis Rhoades to be the department’s communications director. Truitt called Rhoades “the best communications director in the state,” noting she managed communications throughout the pandemic and strove to “keep the narrative positive, tell amazing stories about what our educators are doing, and keep the department above the fray.”

“I mean left to my own devices, I don’t know what that would have happened,” said Truitt. “We’re all only human, and Blair is just really, really good at always helping the team figure out how to message what it is that we’re trying to say.”

“I really looked for people who could be the yin to my yang, people who have different skill sets than than I do, and people who would help me have credibility,” said Truitt. On that last point, she reminded us that the previous state superintendent was not beloved, schools were closed because of the pandemic when she took office, and at that moment in time, no one knew the federal dollars would actually come to the rescue.

“I think my team was — it sounds so cliché — but they were the wind beneath my wings, and still are. I would not be able to do this job if it weren’t for them,” she said.

“The hardest part of my job,” said Truitt, “has been walking the line.”

Truitt thought of the stakeholder relationships like a triangle with DPI at the top, and then the legislature and the State Board of Education as the other points.

“I don’t know that I will ever have to manage any more set of difficult relationships than all of those players,” she said. “And then you add in the 115 superintendents. Everyone’s just doing the best that they can. The 115 districts all have different needs, different challenges, and it’s very, very difficult. There’s just no other way to say it.”

What do you wish you had known when you took office?

“I think it’s a good thing we don’t have crystal balls,” said Truitt, “Because I don’t think I ever would have done this if I had known everything that was that was going to happen.”

When Truitt declared her candidacy, she noted, there was no pandemic, and now, “it’s just a completely different world than it was four years ago.”

When she started campaigning for her first run for office, she noted that bringing back cursive writing was often the issue voters she talked to seemed to care most about. “I was not getting the same kinds of questions four and a half years ago that that we’re getting now,” she said.

Truitt did not understand how difficult it is to be a legislator before taking office, she said, noting a quote she attributed to Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

“It’s so true,” she said.

Most legislators, Truitt said, “are trying to get one thing through to help their community, and they’ll be lucky if that’s going to happen no matter which side of the aisle they’re on.”

Truitt said she also didn’t realize how bureaucratic DPI is — and state agencies in general.

Our crowd laughed when she said, “the only place that’s more bureaucratic than state government is the UNC System.”

“There’s a lot of things I wish I had known,” Truitt said, “but I did definitely feel like all of my experiences in education, in those 20 years, had led me to that point, and I was very excited.”

On what she remembers as her first day in office, there was a Board meeting that took up the history standards.

“That was really fun,” she said.

What’s your biggest worry with a Michele Morrow superintendency?

“A lot of people have said to me, oh my God, she’s gonna burn the place down,” said Truitt. “And the truth is that the state superintendent — no matter who they are — does not have the power to burn the place down. So take comfort in that. I am.”

Truitt said her own biggest worry isn’t whether Morrow is pro-public schools or anti-public schools, but “it’s does she know anything about public schools? Someone who has never had a child in the North Carolina public schools or taught in any public school, why would that candidate want to lead the Department of Public Instruction? I think we’re all a little confused about that.”

Truitt also thinks Morrow finds herself in an echo chamber, and she said while that may be fine in the primary, once you get to the general election, Truitt thinks, “it’s time to start meeting with your stakeholders, and that’s not happening that I can tell.”

“I see no plan,” said Truitt. “I think there’s a lot of talking points, and the talking points are not about things that she would have control over as state superintendent.”

What’s your biggest worry with a Mo Green superintendency?

“Haven’t seen a plan,” Truitt responded.

She said strongly to our crowd, “Leandro is not a plan, y’all. It’s off the table. It’s in the courts. It is not a viable plan for North Carolina’s public schools.”

People on the center to left side of the education ecosystem really don’t like it when Truitt says that. After all, many advocates and funders have invested lots of time and money in this 30-year-old lawsuit. But it is important to hear Truitt on this point if you want to advance policy in this political landscape.

“Whoever is in this role,” Truitt said, “has to have really good relationships with the legislature, and I think that it’s very difficult to work with the legislature even when you’re in the same party, and so when you’re in a different party, that’s even more difficult. No matter who the Democrat was — Mo or anybody else — it’s going to be difficult to get anything done with with the legislature.”

“I also am very worried about the tenor of our statewide conversations around school choice,” said Truitt. “Love of public schools and school choice are not mutually exclusive, and I do believe that many Democrats are ignoring parent voice and choice at their peril.”

Truitt, she said, put all three of her kids through public schools.

“We believe in public schools,” she said.

Courtesy of Catherine Truitt

“But the public neighborhood school is not the right choice for all students, and not all families can afford choice,” said Truitt. “We need to get better at having conversations about school choice, the legislature included.”

“I think that we are moving very quickly towards a consumer-driven approach to choice,” she said, noting she has learned people on the far right refer to public schools as government schools because “the government tells families where to send their child to school, and I don’t know that there’s any other arena in our lives where the government so clearly says this is what you’re going to do. You choose your child’s doctor, parents choose all the things, but the district says you will go to school here.”

“When one party is so squarely against choice while the other is for it, it makes it very difficult for elected officials to have conversations like this one,” she said.

“What worries me about this race in general,” Truitt said, “is that both candidates will have to toe the party line.”

“This role should not be elected,” she said unequivocably. “There are eight of us nationally who participate in partisan elections every four years in this country, and this is exactly why that’s not a good idea.”

On both sides, she said, “you are expected to toe the party line, and that’s not always what’s best for kids.”

You have talked about the need for a roadmap. Who is going to do that?

“Let’s start with that,” said Truitt. “Who?”

In North Carolina, Truitt said no one is ultimately responsible for educational outcomes of students because of our governance structure. Our state is the only state in the nation, she said, where “the State Board receives its power from the constitution with an elected state superintendent and politically appointed Board members. That’s incredibly unique and incredibly problematic, and that’s not how our other two branches of education work. Our community colleges and our UNC System do not work that way. I don’t know what the founders were thinking when they set up our constitution this way.”

“I thought I could come in and make the Department of Public Instruction a place of innovation,” she said. “It is not set up to be a place of innovation.”

If Morrow wins, Truitt said, “we’ve got someone who doesn’t know the difference between a standard and a curriculum.”

And if Green wins, she said, “we’ve got gridlock between the Democrat and the Republican-controlled legislature. So who’s going to do the work?”

Any plan or roadmap, she said, would need to start with a root cause analysis of what’s not working and why.

How can leaders navigate being both for public schools and conservative in 2024?

“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” Truitt reiterated, and pointed to the legislature’s investments in the Excellent Public Schools Act and the science of reading.

“I do not believe the narrative, not for a minute, that the Republican legislature is trying to dismantle public education,” she said. “Are they spending money on Opportunity Scholarships at the expense of public schools? Yes. Is it also at the expense of roads and bridges? Yes, it is.”

“There’s a couple of really big differences right now in North Carolina between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to public education, but I do think there are also some things that people agree on,” she said.

“It’s not nearly as contentious as the media would have you believe,” Truitt said, though both parties, she believes, have made education a wedge issue, and she never would have believed that “education was going to turn into clickbait.”

Truitt reminded us that when it comes to education, most parents know and care about whether their child is safe and happy at school or not. They may not even know who their local superintendent is. Statewide, Truitt’s name recognition is “really low,” she said, ranging between 8-11%.

Parents first and foremost care about who is teaching their child and want to feel like their child is valued, and then, she said, they want a principal who will help their child if needed.

“My point is,” she said, “people have no idea about education (policy and governance). Most voters have no idea what Leandro is.”

What are you proud of?

On the importance of having a vision and a plan

From the beginning, Truitt’s leadership was grounded in a vision. She called it Operation Polaris, and it has been DPI’s north star during her tenure.

“Operation Polaris was, by and large, pretty successful,” said Truitt. “We didn’t get everything across the finish line because we’ve run out of time, but we were certainly on our way to fulfilling all the components set out in Polaris 1.0 and 2.0.”

Polaris, she said, was based on what she had heard from superintendents, and she knew literacy had to be included from watching how former UNC President Margaret Spellings approached leading on literacy.

Getting schools back open in the pandemic

“By the end of January 2021, I was bound and determined that we needed to reopen schools,” said Truitt. She called a leader at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and they started having conversations. “I wanted the locals to be able to decide. I wanted superintendents and local health directors to look at their data and decide if they were going to open or not,” said Truitt.

In March 2021, the General Assembly passed legislation to return students to school.

The science of reading

“I’m incredibly proud of the Excellent Public Schools Act,” said Truitt. “The legislature was very gracious allowing my team and me to weigh in on that legislation and help craft it.” She said the legislation is the envy of other states who don’t have legislation or it is not well funded.

But DPI, she said, went above and beyond, lifting up the leadership of Amy Rhyne, DPI’s Office of Early Learning director, and that team for working with teachers “who were undergoing this enormous professional development that we asked them to do coming out of the pandemic.”

Truitt said North Carolina needs to do for for math what it did for reading.

“We need a statewide policy framework that involves higher education, that is well-funded, and involves teacher preparation and teacher professional development,” she said.

Portrait of a Graduate

DPI unveiled its Portrait of a Graduate in October 2022, highlighting seven durable skills the department hoped public schools across North Carolina would incorporate into day-to-day learning: adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, empathy, learner’s mindset, and personal responsibility.

More than 1,200 people from across the state weighed in on the process, including students.

“I’m incredibly proud of the Portrait of a Graduate work, because I know as you all do, that high-stakes testing, which has its place, is not an adequate way to determine what student success and school quality look like. We have to start infusing durable skills in everything that students do,” said Truitt. “Content is essential, but not adequate.”

“We have to rearrange our thinking and realize that the purpose of public education is to prepare students for the postsecondary plans of their choice,” she said, “whether it’s enlist, enroll, or employee, and we have too many students who are falling between the cracks.”

A real highlight for Truitt is that some districts, she said, have gone on to build their strategic plans around the Portrait of a Graduate.

The redesign of school performance grades and the Teacher Working Conditions Survey

While Truitt didn’t mention these during our conversation, any analysis of her tenure would include the work she did to put in motion the resdesign of school performance grades statewide as well as the redesign of the Teacher Working Conditions Survey.

It is unclear whether the legislature will take up a policy change to the school performance grades without Truitt at the helm, and if they do take it up, whether they will follow this stakeholder-informed proposal.

More than 100,000 North Carolina educators took the updated 2024 Teachers Working Conditions Survey. Approximately 91% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that “overall, my school is a good place to work and learn.”

No regrets

“I am really proud of the fact that after everything that’s happened over the last four years, but especially after everything that’s happened since March, that I have zero regrets,” she said.

As a politician, she said, you have to weigh who you are going to take endorsements and money from.

Those are among other ethical choices that go on to frame public perception of a leader.

And their own perception of their leadership. “You have to look at yourself in the mirror every night,” Truitt said.

“I’m looking forward to not having to make those kinds of decisions. I’m getting my life back,” she said.

“I am incredibly proud there are no regrets,” Truitt reiterated, “and that is in large part due to the support of my family and the team I had around me, and the people who are always trying to do what’s right for kids.”

Truitt said, “I had federal dollars to spend and I had a coalition of the willing, and that’s why we were able to get so much done.”

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.