In Conversation with Julia Bernath
Lives in: Sandy Springs
Current Job: President and District 7 Representative Fulton County Board of Education. Julia will have served for 23 years when her term ends in December, serving twice as Board President and Vice President.
Education: University of Georgia, ABJ Magna Cum Laude in Broadcast News
Leadership: Leadership Sandy Springs, Class of 2003, Leadership Atlanta, Regional Leadership Institute, MJCCA Erwin Zaban Leadership Program, Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s Education Policy Fellowship Program, Leadership GSBA
Family: Husband, Terry, 3 adult children, 6 grandchildren, 2 dogs and 1 granddog
For Fun: travel, movies, reading, Pilates
Favorite Book Recommendations: Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Audio book – As You Wish, written and read by Cary Elwes, Leadership book: The Leadership Challenge, Good to Great by Jim Collins
With the start of the school year, please share some of challenges and opportunities leading the board of a large metro school system like Fulton County Schools?
Fulton County School System is the fourth largest district in Georgia and, as such, encompasses all types of lifestyles, from agricultural to suburban to urban. We are blessed to have engaged parents, staff and communities, but with that blessing come a variety of challenges. As a system over 70 miles long and including 13 cities, opinions and needs are often as diverse as our population!
One of the first and most difficult lessons I learned as a school board member was that no matter what decision we make as a board, there will be people who are not going to be happy. I think one of the reasons our board and district have been so successful is that we each try to keep our decisions focused on what is best for our students (which might not always be what is most convenient for the adults). We understand our role and the superintendent’s role and work not to micromanage. One advantage of being a large district is the availability of resources and being able to utilize economy of scale. We have a depth of experiences and opportunities that smaller districts don’t have, but we also have the challenge of meeting diverse needs in our 100 schools.
Have you seen the leadership landscape change in your career; what do you think is the biggest change?
Our school board positions are non-partisan, but partisan politics sometimes attempt to insert themselves into our decisions. As our country has become more and more polarized, education and governance has become more challenging. Legislators don’t always recognize the unintended consequences that come with the laws they pass. Factor in a pandemic and a fragile economy, and the challenge of providing a quality education in a safe environment with exceptional staff compounds exponentially.
What does today’s leader need to do, know, consider to be successful?
We have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Leaders need to look, listen, and learn before speaking. Be clear on your role as a leader and the mission of your organization. Have empathy and sympathy. Surround yourself with others who have strengths different from yours and learn from them. Work to build consensus and be a leader others want to follow. Share the praise and shoulder the blame. Learn from your mistakes and allow others to do the same. Help prepare others for success.
How would you define a successful leader?
A successful leader inspires and encourages others.
What is one big leadership challenge today?
Building consensus is more challenging, largely because opinions are so polarized. Finding a middle ground during these times can be difficult. We need to find ways to rebuild trust with one another.
Have you had to navigate such a challenge and how did you handle it?
Many times, people just want to know they are being heard. They may not like the decision you make as a leader, but if you really listen to them and let them know you heard them, even if you don’t agree, I think this brings about mutual respect. Topics from redistricting to building and renovating schools to curriculum to masks are all sensitive topics and invite differing opinions, but, again, working to do what is best for students helps keep me grounded.
Do you have favorite leadership quote and/or leader you admire and why?
I have always loved the quote by Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You can’t be a leader if you are unwilling to put yourself out there and leading by example is the best way to do just that.
What keeps you awake at night?
Some of those tough topics that I know will polarize our constituents. But if I know my vote supports our students, even if it is not the most popular decision in the public, I believe I made the correct choice.
What excites you about what you do?
Every year when I watch students walk across the stage to receive their diplomas and toss their caps into the air, I am reminded of why I love my work as a school board member. I began this service when my children were still in school, and now I have grandchildren going through school, so I have a new lens through which to view my work!