Call up the Duval County School Board Office on any given week day, and chances are the first voice you’ll hear is that of Bonnie Cole.
It’s the kind of tone that sounds like a smile on the other end, with the kind of warmness that can disarm even the most agitated caller. And Cole has gotten her fair share of frustrated calls from parents.
“I’ve always tried to remember that while I may have 15 or 20 calls a day like that...that’s the most important thing to them at that moment is their child and the issue they’re having with their child,” she said. “And I try to keep that in mind.”
But come November 1, parents and staff won’t hear that bright voice at the other end of the School Board Office line.
After 42 years, 11 school superintendents and 47 school board members, Bonnie Cole is retiring.
But this isn’t just any retirement. For many who’ve worked in Duval Schools, it’s kind of the end of an era.
“You ought to write a book,” a former school board member told her during a special presentation recently. “Because probably nobody has the historical knowledge that you have.”
Cole, 61, grew up in Duval County Public Schools. The Albany, Ga. native moved to the district at the age of 10, starting at Brentwood Elementary. Shortly after graduating from Terry Parker High School seven years later, she took her first job--an administrative position in the school district’s General Services Department at the age of 17. From there, it was on to the district’s Legal Services and eventually a position as the school board’s first full-time secretary.
“It’s almost like I’ve been in school my whole life,” she said with a laugh.
Standing on a bookshelf in the school board office is a small but thick photo album that can tell the story. Page after page is filled with polyester-clad superintendents and big-haired school staff--the ghosts of school board’s past.
She does have her favorites members, but she’s coy about it.
“That will be my little secret. I love them all,” she said.
To Board members, like Paula Wright, Cole is family.
"Bonnie is a mix between and a cool big sister…so she's that combination because she's friendly, she's funny, but she's very knowledgeable and she's very focused on her work," she said. "If Bonnie's supposed to be somewhere at 7:30, you don't have to worry about it. Seven-thirty she's here."
For Fred “Fel” Lee, who will also soon retire from his seat as District 2 School Board member, Cole as served as a guide during his early months in office.
"When you become a school board member, there is a very large transition... especially when you're knew to the organization, and Bonnie always had the answer," he said. "If you've ever listened to Bonnie over the phone, she has such a sweet disposition... you start to talk to her and all of the sudden, the day gets 50 percent better."
While she can field as many as 30 or 40 calls from constituents a day, there’s plenty more to it--keeping board member calendars, organizing meetings, helping with projects, workshops and superintendent searches. And parents with questions have Bonnie to thank for getting quicker answers from their elected officials. She’s credited with developing a more efficient online system for responding to community inquiries.
So what does a person who has spent nearly a half a century of their life in the Duval County Public School system do when they retire? Well, don’t expect to find her at the school board meetings.
“I’m going to enjoy retirement and family and friends and my arts. I love to paint. I made greeting cards out of one of my paintings” she said, before pointing it out on a nearby office shelf.
She said she plans to keep in regular contact with many of those she’s worked with over the years.
“I’ve made lifelong friends... and we are truly family here,” she said.
And she has a bit of advice for those who still have many years ahead in the Duval Public School system: Seize every opportunity you’re given.
“The opportunity is there. You have to take advantage of it. No one else can do it for you,” she said.
As for Cole, after 42 years of service, she’ll be taking advantage of a well-deserved break.
“I’ve enjoyed my job,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been able to accomplished something.”
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.
*Correction- this story was updated to correctly reflect Cole's hometown.