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Watts's Journey from Basketball Standout to Superintendent of Newport Schools

The following story was submitted by Newport Independent Public Schools as a profile of new superintendent Antonio (Tony) Watts.

A suggestion from a friend and what turned out to be a momentous meeting with one of Northern Kentucky's top educators led Tony Watts into a career that has culminated in becoming the superintendent of the Newport Independent Schools.

Watts was working in the restaurant industry in Northern Kentucky when Debra Vance, a friend who works in communications for the Covington Independent Schools, told him that the school system was recruiting young black men for careers in education. 

So Watts arranged a meeting with Covington Superintendent Jack Moreland, who had also led the Dayton schools, served as interim president of Northern Kentucky University and worked for the Kentucky Department of Education. Moreland is currently the president of Southbank Partners. 

"I went to see Jack Moreland and he offered me a job on the spot," Watts said, recalling the surprise of being offered a position so quickly. "He needed a physical education teacher at Sixth District Elementary School. Jack told me to go see the principal, so I did and the principal said, 'let's do it. Can you start tomorrow?'"

Watts didn't want to leave his employer in a lurch, so her told the principal he had to give his boss two weeks' notice. He ended starting at Sixth District on the first day of the new school year.

"I showed up, the principal said here are your keys, there is the gym, you will have your first class of kids in 45 minutes," Watts said. "So that's how it all started for me in education."

Watts, 49, is replacing Kelly Middleton, who is retiring after eight years with the district.

"We had some remarkable candidates for the position of superintendent," said Ramona Malone, chairwoman of the Newport Board of Education. "But Tony stood out. He has passion, integrity, experience and is a proven and successful leader. He knows our district and our community from his time here, sees the opportunities we have, understands and is ready to confront the challenges we face and is prepared to lead our district so that all of our students have the chances they deserve."

Watts, who graduated from Mississippi State with a marketing degree, went back to school after joining Covington. He received master’s degree in teaching and instructional leadership from Northern Kentucky University, where he also earned his supervisor of instruction certification and superintendent’s certification.

From Covington, where he also worked as the dean of Holmes Junior-Senior High School, Watts served as assistant principal of Conner High School in Boone County and as an Educational Recovery Leader (ERL) for KDE.  He also spent time in the classroom as an eighth-grade English teacher and elementary physical education teacher.

From 2011 to 2015, Watts was as principal of Newport High School. 

"When I was principal, we did some very good things at the high school, and we put a lot programs in place to keep the momentum going," he said. "The year after I left, Newport was recognized by the Kentucky Department of Education as a Distinguished High School and I was proud of the work that we did there."

Watts left Newport so he could gain more experience and be prepared for when Middleton decided to retire. He joined the Fayette County Schools, where he worked as an administrator overseeing middle schools.

"I wanted to get that experience so that when he did retire, I would be ready," Watts said. "It's great when your plan works out."

Basketball star 

Watts grew up in Rolling Fork, a small town of just about 2,000 people in central Mississippi where he was raised by his grandparents. His father, Donald Earl "Slick" Watts, played seven seasons of professional basketball for the Seattle Supersonics, Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Jazz. 

Watts remembers watching the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar play and when his dad was with the Houston Rockets, Watts played a pickup game of one-on-one against Moses Malone, who at the time was one of the league's most dominant players.

"It was exciting growing up with your dad in the NBA," he said. "I had a lot of opportunities that I wouldn't have had without him playing in the NBA. And those gave me my desire and urge to try and play professional basketball."

After playing basketball and graduating from Rolling Fork High School, Watts had a stellar career at Mississippi State. He scored nearly 1,500 points, averaged 19.2 points a game his senior year, was named all SEC and scored in double figures in 30 straight games. During the 1990-91 season Watts was one of the leaders on a team that won the SEC championship and reached the NCAA Tournament.

One of his best games came during the 1990-91 season against the University of Kentucky at Rupp Arena. UK was ranked 10th and coached by the legendary Rick Pitino. Watts only scored two points in the first half, but got hot in the second and scored 20 points including a late bucket that help seal an 83-82 win over the Wildcats. 

Rupp arena was also the site of Watts' first slam dunk as a Bulldog. 

"When I worked in Lexington, I drove by Rupp Arena every day," Watt said with a smile, "and I thought about that dunk."

In 2018, Watts was named to the Mississippi State Hall of Fame. But coming out of college he wasn't drafted by an NBA team. He did have a tryout with the Denver Nuggets, but ultimately landed in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) with a team in Sioux Falls, S.D.

However, his dream of playing professional basketball ended after just five games due to a season-ending wrist injury. By the next season, Watts and his wife, Renata, had their first child and he decided that it was time to pursue another career.

"I'm grateful for the opportunities basketball gave me," he said. "It instilled that competitiveness and desire in me and my never want to lose attitude."  

God's plan

"Education wasn't in my plan," Watts said. "My plan was to play professional basketball. But that wasn't God's plan. People always ask me, why I chose education. But education chose me. I'm a firm believer in that God has a plan for all of us."

Watts said he thrilled to be back in Newport. 

"I love Newport," Watts said. "I like the kids, the faculty, and the staff. It's a family atmosphere. I always wanted to be a superintendent, and figured what place would be better than Newport. I know what it takes, I've done the work here and we can do it again.

"Mr. Middleton has put a lot of good programs and initiatives in place," he said. "The facilities are great. We are in a strong financial position. The board is excellent. So I knew this would be a great opportunity."

Watts said the initial focus will be on improving instruction, providing support for faculty and staff, monitoring progress and holding everyone accountable.

"We must have high expectations for everyone in the district," he said. "If someone is not doing what they need to do to move the district forward, then we need to have some conversations and provide the support that is necessary to make all students successful."

Family man

Watts and his wife are the parents of three children: Sydney, 26, and Nicholas, 23, are graduates of the University of Louisville; Lauryn, 21, is studying at UofL. The family also has two dogs, a Goldendoodle, Vinny, and a Cane Corso, Diesel.

“We are emptynesters, but now we have two dogs,” he said. "Those are my boys."

Watts and his wife, who have been married for 28 years, have known one another since kindergarten. "She's been my best friend my whole life and she is the reason I am here today."

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