Leaving will be bittersweet for Jason Branch.
After four years as principal of South Forsyth High School, it will be difficult to say goodbye. But Branch also said he’s excited for what lies ahead.
On March 19 the Oconee County Board of Education likely will vote to hire Branch as the school system’s new superintendent.
“Forsyth is such a great place and we’ve made so many good professional and personal relationships, we’re excited and a little sad all at the same time,” Branch said. “We just saw this as a tremendous opportunity to … have an even greater impact.”
Branch said he and his wife, Catherine, made the decision around Christmas to apply for the position being vacated by the retiring John Jackson. Branch was among nearly 50 applicants from more than 10 states.
In a statement, David Weeks, chairman of the Oconee school board, said there were some strong candidates in the mix, but “we believe we have found the right man at the right time.”
Branch said in addition to his background as a teacher, coach and administrator, his experience in Forsyth County likely set him apart from other candidates.
“Great work happens here on a regular basis,” he said. “And the fact that the system leads in the state and the nation … and is very forward thinking, people respect Forsyth County and the work that we do here.”
While Branch touted the Oconee school system as similar in quality, there will be a significant shift in reach.
Forsyth has 35 schools, while Oconee has 10, including two high schools. But the smaller size is home for Branch, who grew up in a small town.
“In many ways, Oconee feels very similar to a lot of experiences I’ve had and their community mirrors Forsyth in a lot of ways,” he said. “It is a similar community with a smaller number of students and a smaller number of schools, but I think it’s a perfect fit professionally and personally at this time.”
Forsyth County School Superintendent Buster Evans said he’s proud of Branch, though he’s sad to “lose somebody who’s been a valuable part of our leadership team.”
“I think he will be a good fit for them,” Evans said. “He’s been a strong leader here. He’s got high expectations for staff and kids. We will continue to support him and we wish him and Oconee County schools the very best as he begins his new chapter.”
Evans said Branch will be missed, but South will continue to flourish.
“They’ve got great faculty, they’ve got great kids,” he said. “If we’ve all done our jobs, any of us can leave the system and the school can continue to operate.
“That’s a sign of good leadership. Good leaders don’t leave a void when they leave.”
Branch and his wife have a 17-month-old daughter, Abigail, whose education played a key role in their decision.
“We feel like she was going to get a great education here and an equally great education there,” Branch said.
He plans to stay in Forsyth until June, though he has begun talking with Jackson and is starting to meet stakeholders in Oconee.
While the future awaits, Branch said he’ll hold on to lessons learned in Forsyth County, specifically through watching Evans.
“Dr. Evans is a model superintendent,” he said. ““People will tell you that Dr. Evans makes them feel like the most important person in the room when he speaks to them and gives them his undivided attention and tries to learn about them as a person and their families.
“And I think through building those relationships with those individuals in our organization, he’s built a stronger organization. That’s well worth modeling.”
Branch said he’s learned from Evans about managing staff, while giving them the leeway to support their own departments.
“I can talk for days about the impact Dr. Evans has had on me professionally and personally,” Branch said. “Working for him is, without a doubt, the reason I have been given this opportunity.”
He may be leaving for a new county, but Branch said he will keep an eye on Forsyth.
“I want everyone to know here how valuable our experience in Forsyth County has been and how much we appreciate the opportunities here,” he said.