NASHVILLE - State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman makes no apologies for a sharp-elbowed approach that now has nearly half of Tennessee's local school directors up in arms about his management style and policies.
"We can either decide that we're going to stay in the bottom 10 states in the country in educational outcomes or we can decide we're going to do the things that will make Tennessee be a competitive state when it comes to educational results," Huffman, a former top official with Teach for America, said Thursday.
A petition targeting Huffman still is being circulated among the chiefs of Tennessee's 137 school districts. At least 63 have so far signed what they call an "extraordinary step" because they believe Huffman "has no interest in a dialogue" with them.
Huffman told two reporters he hasn't seen the petition but when pressed acknowledged having seen it in news accounts. He disagrees with many of its assertions.
"I just spent three days with all the superintendents at [their conference] and had great conversations with lots of people. I spent my first year touring every single district in the state, visited all 137 districts.
"So there are always things we can do to be better when it comes to communication, but the reality is we are very open to having lots of conversations with lots of people."
He acknowledged, however, that "people won't always agree with the decisions that we make."
School directors and superintendents say in the petition they're starting to think Huffman sees teachers, principals and directors or superintendents as "impediments to school improvement rather than partners."
Their overtures, they say, "have been met with scripted messages and little interest in accomplishing great change by changing culture."
The effort to "acquire a voice with this administration is futile," states the petition. "We are not content with the current leadership."
Educators plan to present the petition to Gov. Bill Haslam, who personally recruited Huffman, as well as to state lawmakers.
The petition asks Haslam and lawmakers to address their concerns "and the concerns of many of our parents, teachers and principals."
Good luck with all that, judging by the response from Haslam's office Thursday.
"We haven't received a letter or petition," Haslam spokesman David Smith said in a statement. "The governor supports the commissioner, and the data shows the state is making real progress."
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said he hasn't been asked to sign the petition. His colleagues in Davidson and Shelby counties have signed, according to news reports, as has the head of Williamson County schools, one of the top-performing systems in Tennessee.
Huffman has said he -- and the state-- are not moving too fast in implementing changes.
"We are committed to doing what's right for kids and we're going to continue to be committed to doing what's right for kids. It's important we talk to people, it's important we listen to people, it's important that people have input.
"But," he said, "at the end of the day we're going to make decisions that are in the best interests of children in Tennessee."
Over his 2 1/2-year tenure, Huffman has successfully pushed to tie teacher pay to student performance and tougher qualifications for teachers to get and keep tenure.
The Tennessee Education Association has long been upset with Huffman. A separate petition calling for Huffman's firing, posted on the website change.org, has 1,707 signatures.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.