By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Reporter
A state championship, a pandemic, and a long overdue cultural education. Cherokee Central Schools will be a chapter in Dr. Michael Murray’s life that he could never forget.
Superintendent Murray, who is retiring at the end of 2022, began making the winding drive up Big Cove Road during the summer of 2017. With over 30 years of experience working in different school systems, you could probably assume what you’re getting yourself into. However, nothing could’ve prepared Murray for what the next five and a half years had in store.
“I will tell you, out of four different school systems, this one has been the most exciting, unique school system that I’ve ever been a part of. I look at that as a blessing. It has truly been one of the highlights of my career to be able to serve here on the Qualla Boundary. And to learn about a culture that I should’ve known more about. From a young kid growing up in Madison County and North Buncombe, you would think I would know more about Cherokee except for some good fishing spots. I regret that. This position gave me the opportunity to learn more about our neighbors and about a culture that is very rich,” said Murray.
While the last few years have been a shock to the system in more ways than one, Murray said that he appreciates all of it – especially the relationships he’s developed in that time. He said that has been hammered home since he announced his decision to retire.
“I’ve truly been very blessed here. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of folks that have given me a tremendous amount of support. I’ve had a lot of kind things said and a lot of folks supporting me and saying they understood – that they’ve appreciated the time that I’ve put in up to this point. This was never a retirement job for me. I’ve worked extremely hard here. Mainly because I love the kids here. Unlike anywhere else that I’ve ever worked, you have quite a bit more community involvement. You’re not dealing with just county commissioners. You have a chief, vice chief, tribal council, and a school board. At the end of the day, I never really took the job to please everybody. I took the job because I really wanted to do what was right for kids and keep that focus on our children.”
The ultimate pressure has come in the last couple of years. The COVID-19 pandemic presented one of the most challenging obstacles that schools have ever faced. Murray said that it was difficult to see so many of his peers leave their posts because of the pandemic, but it made him want to ride out the storm even more.
“Out of 115 school systems in North Carolina, I think they’re down to just a very few of the 115 superintendents that are left. Probably under 10 with over five years of experience, I haven’t looked at that data lately. I’m one of very few that does have experience as a superintendent. Most of them did make the decision because of COVID. Because it has been something that none of us had planned on. It’s been unprecedented. It’s extremely hard to run a school system and try to work with quarantines and with a changing pandemic that has made it frustrating for every school leader out there. If I was going to retire, I probably should’ve retired three years ago. But I did not want to leave our group without the leadership in place during a pandemic. As we are transitioning out, I think the timing is better for me now, personally. Because I don’t feel like I’m leaving my school system in worse shape than when I found it.”
While the pandemic has been a dark cloud, Murray said that he could not be prouder of how CCS has handled the adversity.
“Truthfully, our numbers during COVID as far as student numbers have actually stabilized or grown during the pandemic. Every measure of what can be achieved during a pandemic, including feeding the community and making sure that we expanded our online offerings, every measure for success can be found in Cherokee. Mainly because of the dedication of the people here – not just the leadership.”
He said that choosing individual memories from the last five years is very difficult. However, he said that it is hard to beat his first semester on campus.
“I will never forget us that first year. Because I was able to travel with the boys to Choctaw on their bus. I was able to be part of supporting them as they won their first state championship. I’d served in school systems for 30+ years and never had a school system that had a state championship in football…I sort of knew when I was down in Choctaw and I watched that specific team gel that they were very special.”
Murray said that from the administrative level, he is thrilled that at the steps they have made even up to this year.
“I was also extremely proud of our accreditation process. We’re doing an accreditation that is more stringent than everywhere else in our region. Most folks are not even going for accreditation now because the state is offering a dual type of accreditation where they don’t have to do a national accreditation or district accreditation. Ours is called Cognia, which is more stringent. I’m proud of our system for taking that on.”
He said that this job is one that is exciting and fulfilling, but one that takes a lot of care to manage. Murray said that his successor will need to be patient and use plenty of empathy when filling the role.
“A new person coming in needs to understand that it’s not like that anywhere else they’ve ever worked. If you come in with an agenda or if you’re doing something to impress people, this position will be very difficult. Because it really isn’t about you,” explained Murray. “I think it’s really important in Cherokee that you listen and take in everything before you make major changes. It’s also important that you use research and that you listen to your community entities as you work with your School Board to make sure the decisions you make represent the majority of the people.”
One of the hopes that Murray has is to make sure every person that works or teaches at CCS learns about Cherokee culture. He said that CCS is looking to implement an induction process for new staff members that will include cultural education.
“I think it’s important that they not only understand that [Cherokee is] unique and blessed, but that they understand that some of things they may have learned about Cherokee may not have been accurate. The shame is that, even if we grew up in the area, we didn’t understand the difference between what history painted in public schools and what really happened here in Cherokee. Not only do I feel like I’ve given what skills I’ve had but I’ve gained a lot more from serving here that I could actually give.”
Murray says this is his last job. He’s had 38 years in school systems, but now it’s time to take care of his family. For the last year he has been commuting from Asheville in order to take care of members of his family. One of his daughters is taking a job in Spain, and he has nearly enough grandchildren to lose count. There are 10…for now.
He doesn’t want to be a stranger though. He said that this job has changed his perspective on Cherokee and the region. He’ll be looking out for CCS from a distance, or maybe while fishing for trout across the street.
“I just want to thank everyone for not only supporting Cherokee Central Schools and our school family, but for the job that they do with their children and the community – honoring their elders. All of the things that I’ve observed since I’ve been here reinforces that there’s no place like this in the world. We have everything here that anyone could ever ask for and we certainly are blessed beyond measure every day to be in Cherokee.”