The Hamilton County school board’s decision Thursday to hire Rick Smith as the system’s new superintendent precisely followed the script fixed by the controlling five-member majority that ordained the process and the outcome — all in secret.
That’s the problem with it. The flawed process was entirely predictable. And it was entirely wrong.
It was all engineered and accomplished by fiat outside the legal boundaries of the state’s Sunshine Law. Public participation and comment regarding Smith’s selection were arrogantly barred. Smith’s contract and $163,500 salary were admittedly determined privately by board chairman Mike Evatt while he (Evatt) was on vacation — though possibly with secret communications with other members of the board’s majority: how could we know? — and agreed to by Smith in a private, three-minute conversation with Evatt.
And even before the predetermined deal was officially approved in the set-piece Thursday board meeting, Smith selected the top five key members of his staff in the central office. In doing so, he wrongly circumvented the regular procedure of posting the positions, allowing applications from others, and presenting his choices to the board for approval.
Smith’s revelation of those appointments during his ritual coronation prompted George Ricks, one of the four board members excluded from the secret process, to observe: “This has become a debacle. This is not done right. It doesn’t look right.”
That is a gross understatement. The board’s disdain of the public’s right to transparency and participation in the selection of a superintendent, of course, has become increasingly apparent for weeks.
• It first appeared when the secretly arranged ouster of former Superintendent Jim Scales broke in the news.
• It continued with the five-member vote to jettison all previous requirements for a national search and public process for a new superintendent, including a rigorous review of applicants’ strategic vision and educational qualifications (including the preference for a doctoral degree).
• It moved a step further when the board’s majority devised a rule that Smith could be moved from “interim” superintendent status to official status within 15 days, the minimum public notice.
• And it culminated Thursday not only with the concluding chapter of the flawed process, but also with Smith’s premature and presumptuous staff changes.
The entire process has illustrated not only a breathtaking degree of casual arrogance and hubris by the five members of the majority. It also constitutes a complete disregard by the board’s five controlling members for public accountability and responsible communication with the school system’s constituencies.
Owing to the shotgun selection process, members of the community at large have not had the opportunity to get to know Superintendent Smith’s educational views, goals or vision for the future. If he has a mandate from the board, it also is a secret.
However well-intentioned he may be, we do know that despite his long interest in becoming superintendent, Smith never chose to pursue a doctoral degree, the standard requisite for higher-level superintendent candidates. We also now know that he has willingly condoned the secret selection process that deliberately changed the old selection rules, excluded the public, and operated by back channel communications.
None of the latter builds confidence in his selection. The perception of Smith is further undermined by the long support of him by board member Rhonda Thurman, whose hurtful racist resentment of magnet schools and initiatives to strengthen inner-city schools raises broad concern about the direction Smith would take the school system.
There is apparently little the public can do, at least until the next school board elections, to coax or coerce better behavior by the school board’s majority members except to show its concern. Outrage at the board’s arrogant snub of a public process, and board members’ seeming indifference to Thurman’s racist opposition against special programs for inner-city schools, leaves us with scant reason to endorse Smith’s selection.
He has a lot to prove, and a large divide to heal. We wish him wisdom, courage and success in fairly improving the school system across the board — in behalf of all our children, and the community’s progress.
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