Leonard Fitts retired more than two decades ago.
But if you ask him where he has worked since then, he starts counting, and then pulls out his extensive resumé. His latest entry: interim Burlington City schools chief.
In a career spanning four decades, Fitts, 79, has been a math teacher, a principal, a guidance counselor, a school psychologist, an assistant superintendent, and a superintendent. He also served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.
Fitts, of Moorestown, retired in 1996 as the Union County superintendent of schools, a job that required him to drive a 200-mile round-trip each day. But he didn’t really retire.
Sometimes, with only days between assignments, Fitts has continued working for nearly 25 years. He has no plans to stop, much to the chagrin of his wife.
“I don’t think I’m running out of gas,” Fitts said. “I enjoy it. I get up every morning going to do something."
Fitts has served as an interim schools chief throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, filling a crucial void until districts can select a permanent superintendent. His stints included a charter school in Newark and Bishop Eustace Preparatory in Pennsauken.
He has served as interim superintendent in Pleasantville, Lawnside, Penns Grove-Carneys Point, Glassboro, Berlin Township, Willingboro, Coatesville, and Camden (twice). His tenure typically lasts from a few months to two years.
Around the region, he has earned a reputation as an experienced school leader who can easily take over operating a district, even the most troubled. He often focuses on effective teaching, literacy, finances, and partnerships.
New Jersey allows retired educators to work for up to two years in one assignment and still collect their pension. Fitts earns a per diem of $650 in Burlington City.
The Burlington City school board tapped Fitts in October to run the district of about 1,600 students. Superintendent Patricia Doloughty had retired after 10 years on the job.
”We were looking for someone to fill the gap and keep the district on a permanent path,” said Board President Jennifer Montone. “He’s doing a wonderful job filling the void.”
At the district’s Wilbur Watts Intermediate School, where his office is located, Fitts made the rounds during a recent visit. He greeted students and staff with a smile, asking their names.
”He made a tremendous first impression,” said principal Robert Shappell. "He is always so positive and friendly with the staff and the kids.”
In addition to his superintendent duties, Fitts briefly took on another task in the district. While Capt. James Lawrence School principal Sherry Knight was on leave recently, he filled in at the K-2 school.
Fitts also has been an adjunct professor at 18 universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a dean at Cheyney University, and an interim dean at Rowan College at Burlington County. He also worked for the New Jersey Department of Education.
Lawnside Superintendent Ronn Johnson praised Fitts as a role model for other black educators, but said there should be more in the pipeline. There are about two dozen black superintendents in New Jersey’s nearly 600 school districts.
“There should be another generation of folks who can pick up the mantle,” Johnson said.
The oldest of four brothers, Fitts grew up in Faunsdale, Ala., near Selma, site of the attack on civil rights marchers in March 1965. He earned a bachelor’s degree in science and math and a master’s in counseling from Tuskegee University. He also holds a doctorate in educational psychology and administration from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Drexel University.
After graduating from Tuskegee, Fitts spent two years in the Air Force as a second lieutenant. Afterward, he taught math at Tuskegee and later worked for the Radio Corp. of America as a guidance counselor and administrator.
His career in education began as a licensed clinical psychologist with the Philadelphia School District in 1971. Since then, he has held nearly two dozen positions.
In 2006, Fitts did a second tour in Camden after Superintendent Annette Knox resigned amid a state criminal investigation into the district’s spending practices, including her bonuses, and a test-score rigging scandal. (He was also there from 1998 to 2000.)
Fitts accepted another challenging positions in 2013, when the Coatesville school chief resigned after the district learned that the superintendent and the athletic director had exchanged sexist and racist text messages about students and staff.
”He is a bridge-maker during troubled times,” said former school board member Tonya Thames-Taylor, a history professor at West Chester University. “He can put a district back on track.”
In Pleasantville, where Fitts served from 2014 to 2016, he was always professional, whether dealing with staff or an irate parent, said his former executive secretary, Rhonda Moore-McQueen. He was also known for his sense of humor and bringing doughnuts to the office twice a week, she said.
“A day didn’t go by when we didn’t laugh about something,” Moore-McQueen recalled.
Fitts, according to his wife of 53 years, Sherrell, a retired educator, just wants to help — school districts, neighbors, and family members. Outside of work, her husband enjoys restoring old cars.
“When he is available, he will do anything under the sun for you,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever going to slow down.”
Her husband agreed.
"When I look at all of the brilliant children, I ask myself, 'What can I do to get them to the next step?‘ he said. “That’s what keeps me going.”