Dedication: 43-year board member Charles Bireley retires

Indian River School District board of education member Charles Bireley congratulates Fabrea McCray during Indian River High School’s 2018 commencement. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

DAGSBORO — It’s probably not going to be shocking or earth-moving, but there will be an adjustment period, Charles M. Bireley admits.

“I don’t know how that is going to be,” said the 80-year-old Clarksville/Ocean View area resident. “I had built myself to the point where I knew that it was something necessary for me to do.”

The “do” in his case is board of education service. As of midnight Friday, July 31, 2020, Mr. Bireley’s tenure as a member of Indian River School District’s school board officially ended.

His school board commitment encompassed 43-plus years, spanning two separate stints: 1974-89 and 1992-2020. It undoubtedly ranks among the longest tenures in Delaware public education history.

Eighty years old as of Jan. 29, Mr. Bireley did not seek re-election. His District 4 representative seat on IRSD’s board was secured by Connie Pryor in the July 21 school board election.

“The age thing is a factor. There is nothing wrong with me physically,” said Mr. Bireley. “But it is just one of those things that at this time I didn’t think that committing for another five years was in the best interest of either me, my family or the school district.”

First attempt a defeat

His board service was punctuated by highs and lows, victories and defeats, including failed and successful referendum efforts.

Let the record show that his first board of education attempt met defeat, prior to district consolidation in 1969 that merged several smaller districts that became the IRSD.

“I actually ran for school board … John M. Clayton. It was before consolidation,” Mr. Bireley said. “There was a small turnout, like 300 people. I think I got like 92 votes or something like that. I thought to myself, ‘My Lord, this is embarrassing.’ I thought no way in this world would I ever do anything like that again. But they talked me into trying again in a few years after consolidation, and in 1974, that’s what I did.”

A lot of IRSD employees and many parents of IRSD students were not yet born when Mr. Bireley first joined the board in 1974.
Mark Steele, a graduate of the Indian River system and 39-year district employee who recently retired as IRSD’s superintendent, put the longevity in perspective.

“When I was 12 years old, I played for the JMC Bears Little League team, and Charlie coached the JMC Cubs,” Mr. Steele said. “Mr. Bireley actually started his board career in the summer of my ninth-grade year, and I just completed a 39-year tenure with the school district.”

“So, I have known him for a long, long time. I had the chance to work with him in administration 28 straight years. And what a wealth of knowledge. He is like a walking encyclopedia of Indian River School District history. It’s a lot easier to run a school district by getting ahead of things than having to react to things. He’s really good at that. He has a very good memory and has always been able to sort of lead the board — I believe — down the right path.”

District has been blessed

Delaware Department of Education Secretary Dr. Susan Bunting, who was IRSD superintendent from 2006 to January 2017, says the hallmark of Charles Bireley’s tenure is dedication, and the district’s hallmark is continuity.

“I truly believe that Indian River is where it is today as far as a district with a phenomenal reputation throughout the state, is because of continuity,” said Dr. Bunting. “The district has been blessed to have leaders that have been not just been there, but they stayed there. And in many cases they have … grown with the district so that they understand the workings of the district and what needs to be done, and they’ve been there long enough to support getting it done, either by being personally involved or supporting the efforts of others to promote the academics, to work on the upgrading of facilities … for tackling whatever it happens to be.

Charles Bireley leaves the Indian River School District board of education with 43-plus years, a number of those serving as board president.

“There is something to be gained by people who are in place and stay. If you have constantly changing leadership you cannot make progress. So that continuity is really important. You can see it with Mr. Bireley in the board, and you can also see it definitely in the leadership in central office. It has to be there. That is, I think much of the success in the history of ‘our’ district at this point, and I will always say ‘our’ district.”

Mr. Bireley and wife Joann have two grown sons and one grandson. For four-plus decades he worked for Delmarva Power at the Indian River Power Plant, retiring in 1996.

A 1957 graduate of Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Maryland, Mr. Bireley earned a two-year degree from Del Tech in Georgetown. He took the roundabout route.

“When it opened in 1967, I started and got a two-year business degree,” he said. “I was working for Delmarva Power; so, I went at night. It only took me seven years!”

Safety and security

Among the school district’s milestones and accomplishments, safety and security top his list.

“The thing that I am most proud of is the security officers that we decided a number of years ago to put in our schools. I believe Indian River was the first district who did that,” said Mr. Bireley. “There was a lot going on in the country. We thought we would do the very best that we could to protect our kids. It was nothing better than to put somebody in there that was well trained in our schools.

“After a few years of that, we actually went to the public and asked them for a couple pennies (tax increase) extra on their taxes each year to pay for that. The first couple years that we did that we didn’t have as many as we do now, of course, but we used our own money that we had in the district. Since then, people have OK’d to raise the taxes a few pennies each year to pay for people in every building.”

The people spoke

His personal low point was losing a board re-election bid in 1989.

“I got beat by 30-some votes. Again, I said, ‘That’s it. That’s enough. The people have spoken,’” he said. “It was really hard after 15 years to take that. It was one of those things that happened. The people spoke. And they wanted to try someone else. That’s the American way.”

Friends and colleagues encouraged him to get up off the canvass and run again.

“It was, ‘We’d like for you to try again and we’ll help you,’ And they did,” said Mr. Bireley. “I had to wait three years before the vote was taken again in my district, District 4. They did help me and basically the people of the community have been helping me ever since.”

Mr. Bireley’s board tenure may be the longest ever in Delaware. He says he was not on any record-breaking mission.

“I was not trying to set any record,” he said. “It was just, at the time I have really enjoyed this. I had a very good relationship most of the time with board members. Going back, there have been a lot of board members that I have been associated with over the years. I enjoyed all of that. I think I have a decent relationship in the community.

Students most important

“I have said that the number-one priority is the students in the district. That has always been the way I looked at it and that is the way that I will leave, the same way. If we didn’t have the students, we wouldn’t need the schools. They are the most important thing,” Mr. Bireley said.

Dr. Bunting noted the challenge Mr. Bireley faced as board president many of those years with the anomaly in the IRSD with its board composition. The board of education is comprised of 10 members, two each from the five geographical districts that encompass 365 square miles.

“It needs six votes to pass anything, even if only seven people are there at the meeting,” said Dr. Bunting. “Charlie has had to work to get those separate district representations to agree on things. That, in itself, is a monumental feat because they have a particular constituency that they are concerned about. So, he has had to do the daunting task of trying to get those district representatives to think about the ‘big’ district. He has managed to be in there all those years to lead Indian River to the position that it is in right now.”

IRSD school board president Charles Bireley presents graduate Daniel Azar his diploma at a past Sussex Central graduation.

“Charlie would tell me numerous times, ‘It takes six board members to pass something.’ I’ve never heard him complain about the way a vote went, whether he was on the winning side or not. He’d accepted it and he’d move on,” said Mr. Steele. “He’s a very quiet leader, a great guy to work with. And we didn’t always agree. But I can tell you the respect that we had for each other. There was never any type of harsh feelings or anybody upset.”

He has been on board for every top-level administrator the IRSD has known.

“I have been a board member for every superintendent the Indian River School District has had, starting back with Mr. (James) Proudfoot when we consolidated,” said Mr. Bireley.

Mr. Bireley plans to keep tuned to the IRSD as a citizen and community member. He says he is open to discussion or consultation on district matters, if called upon.

“I have already told them I will not be bothering you. Anytime that you would like to call and talk about anything … I will be more than happy to do that,” Mr. Bireley said. “But I am not going to be calling them and telling them how to run their business or run the district.”

Sports fan

A self-proclaimed sports nut, Mr. Bireley’s involvement in the school district included athletics. He kept statistics for Indian River High School football for many years, and served as scorekeeper for basketball, girls’ softball and on occasion baseball at IRHS.
“Athletics is truly a passion of his. For years and years and years I don’t think there was a basketball game nor a girls’
softball game that he did not attend and participate in, in the scoring,” said Dr. Bunting. “That is what he loves to do, and he was able to do it and did it very effectively. He has just dedicated himself to sports programs as well as to the board, and he does so very humbly and quietly.”

Mr. Steele noted Mr. Bierley’s long scorekeeping tenure for the basketball team. “You know what he did with that money? He donated right back to the basketball team boosters, every dime of it,” said Mr. Steele.

Dr. Susan Bunting, as superintendent of the Indian River school District in 2015, presents a memento to longtime board of education member Charles Bireley, marking his 38 years on the board. Mr. Bireley’s IRSD board tenure concluded Friday night, July 31 at midnight, at 43-plus years.

Outside of the IRSD, Mr. Bireley has been a press box/scorekeeping fixture for the Little League Softball World Series staged at the Lower Sussex Little League complex in Roxana. This year’s event, of course, was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Bunting shared her recollection of Mr. Bireley’s additional support.

“Odyssey of the Mind doesn’t always come up for discussion. I was a coach for a long time and then sponsored the program. And Charlie would very silently support those kids and donate toward their going to the national competitions,” he said. “He just has a heart for supporting students. And that means a lot. He has just given his life for years to helping that school district become what it is today, with many meetings, phone calls, public obligations, sporting events — he shows up at banquets and really supports the students in every way that he can, many ballgames and many events.”

In closing

“I think as much as he has enjoyed it, Charlie now is ready to move on and enjoy some other things,” said Mr. Steele. “He has done an immense amount of good for this school district — and when I say immense, I mean a huge immense for this school district.”

“People look to Indian River as a model of excellence and they try to emulate what Indian River has done,” Dr. Bunting said. “So, Charlie has had a major contribution to that reputation.”

“I have enjoyed doing it,” said Mr. Bireley. “I will go out just like I wanted to do. I chose not to run and told people why … Father Time takes cares of you.”