By Jesse Wood
Sept. 12, 2014. When Paul Miller became the attorney for the Watauga County Board of Education in the spring of 1977, he was learning on the fly. Not only was he an inexperienced lawyer for the school board, but Miller had been sworn in as an attorney just six months earlier.
“I was learning the law and school board law at the same time,” said Miller, who recently retired as the county’s school board attorney in August after 37 years on the job.
As new Watauga County Schools Supt. Scott Elliott said during a tribute at an August meeting in which Miller was recognized with a plaque for his nearly four decades of service to Watauga County Schools, Miller began working for the school board during the Carter Administration.
“Board agendas could not be delivered via e-mail. However, they could have been delivered by a brand new Ford Pinto or American Motors Gremlin. There was no Internet. In fact there were no personal computers as such. No one had to be asked to turn off a cell phone in a meeting,” Elliott said, giving Miller’s time at the school system a historical perspective.
“Cove Creek and Mabel school had not yet been built, let alone the current Watauga High School. People were not yet complaining about having to pay a whole $1 per gallon for gasoline. ‘No child left behind’ only meant good news about a field trip. Jim Hunt was in the first of his four terms as governor. I guess what I’m saying is that either things have changed really fast or that Mr. Miller has been with us a good while, perhaps both.”
Miller said with a new superintendent coming on board he thought it would be a “good time to step aside and let someone else take charge” as the lawyer for the school board. He also added that while he enjoyed the job, it had became more complicated as the years went on, particularly citing federal regulations and “those sort of things.”
“Yeah it was a different than everything else I was doing, and I did enjoy it. It was a good experience, and it was an interesting job with interesting people that you meet and work with, and I had fun at it,” Miller said. “But through the years, it’s gotten to be more complicated with all the federal rules and those sort of things.”
Miller said while he is retiring from the school board, he isn’t “retiring, retiring.” He’s still a partner at Miller & Johnson, LLC, in Boone and runs Carroll Leather Goods in Boone, a company owned by two longtime friends Sterling and Royce Carroll.
As the school board attorney, Miller’s job was to make sure the school board didn’t violate any laws – and compared to other school system’s in the bigger cities, Miller mentioned that Watauga County Schools had relatively fewer lawsuits.
“Yeah, we weren’t really involved in many lawsuits. Our system is not as diverse – I guess that’s the best word – as some of the systems of the larger cities, so we didn’t have the integration lawsuits like they had in Charlotte and Winston-Salem and in those places,” Miller said.
“My goal was not to try to voice my opinion about how the board should vote on issues from a policy standpoint. That’s kind of their job. My job was to make sure what they were going to vote on didn’t violate any laws, and I think I did that pretty well there,” Miller said, adding with a smile in his voice, “A few times maybe I spoke my mind when I shouldn’t have.”
Over the years, Miller noted some of the trying times the school dealt with. He mentioned personnel issues and capital improvement projects, most notably the new Watauga High School, which Miller said, “Took some time but I think that was the right decision.”
With that said, though, Miller said the weather proved to be the biggest stickler.
“Some of the worst times I think were [issues] the school board didn’t really have control over. It was the weather when we missed a lot of school and we had all kinds of people come up to us, wanting to know why we were missing school because the roads in town were in good shape,” Miller said. “But this is a pretty diverse county and you can have bad conditions in one part and good ones in another, and it’s hard to juggle that I think. You want to be sure the kids are safe, but at the same time you need to be in school when you are supposed to be.”
Miller told school board earlier this week that Watauga County Schools “is a great school system,” one that he expects to stay among the top systems in the state. He also mentioned he has a personal interest in the success of the school because his granddaughter will be attending school in a few years.
Speaking to High Country Press on Thursday, Miller expanded on comments referring to the system’s bright future and offered some advice to those leading Watauga County Schools.
“Well, we consistently rank in the top five systems in terms of most testing and SAT scores … I think we have really good teachers and administrators and, obviously, students and I don’t really see that changing,” Miller said. “But the environment out there is changing and as I told the board, I would hope they spend as much time as they can thinking strategically three to five to ten years down the road and less on everyday things that the administrators can handle. I think the new superintendent is going to be great. I didn’t get to work with him that long, but he seems like a very personable guy and really sharp.”
And Supt. Elliott returned the praise. Here’s how Elliott ended his remarks on Miller’s retirement at the recent school board meeting:
“From those [early] days until this day, Paul Miller has delivered honest, reliable, well-reasoned legal counsel to the Watauga County Board of Education and our school administrators. Through changes in board members and superintendents, through countless re-writings of federal and state laws and policies affecting education and of our board policies, through many student concerns and a never ending flow of reassignment appeals and other closed session topics, through a range of issues ranging from the petty to the profound, Mr. Miller has always offered principled guidance and sound judgment to this school system.
“It is a body of work to be proud of. Today we say to you that we are grateful for your counsel, we are better for your service, and we deeply appreciate all that you have done for us over these 37 years. We wish you our very best as you begin this next phase of your life.”