Rick Smith quits after months of turmoil, revelation of scathing schools report

Rick Smith quits after months of turmoil, revelation of scathing schools report

March 14th, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Former Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith is questioned as a witness before Judge Robert Philyaw during a preliminary hearing for the Ooltewah High School basketball coaches and the school's athletic director in Hamilton County Juvenile Court on Feb. 25.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

POLL: Did schools Superintendent Rick Smith make the right decision?

Previous school board votes about the buyout

The Hamilton County Board of Education voted twice over the past two months regarding Superintendent Rick Smith’s future.

On Jan. 21, the school board voted 6-3 in favor of entering into a separation agreement with Smith. School board members Jonathan Welch, George Ricks, Karitsa Mosley, Joe Galloway, Donna Horn and Steve Highlander cast votes in favor.

On March 7, the school board voted 5-4 against the proposed $269,000 buyout. In favor of the buyout were Welch, Ricks, Galloway and David Testerman.

School board elections

Hamilton County citizens interested in running for school board can qualify through April 7.
The seats up for re-election this fall are:

  • District 1, Rhonda Thurman
  • District 2, Jonathan Welch
  • District 4, George Ricks
  • District 7, Donna Horn

Hamilton County School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch reads a prepared statement during a public session concerning the Ooltewah High School basketball rape case Wednesday night in front of an overflow crowd. Welch immediately adjourned the meeting with no other comments or discussion allowed. School board member Donna Horn, left, sits alongside.

Hamilton County School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch reads...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman speaks during a school board meeting on March 7.

Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Document: Report on Hamilton County's iZone schools

The Tennessee Department of Education called Hamilton County's school reform efforts inadequate and unfocused in a report that highlighted chronic problems in the school system.

After weathering more than two tumultuous months, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith announced Monday he is leaving his post, effective immediately.

Since the rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman, allegedly by three of his basketball teammates, Smith has been criticized for his handling of the situation and lack of communication.

Smith asked the school board in January to begin negotiating a separation agreement with him, and the board voted 6-3 in favor. Last week, the school board voted 5-4 against the $269,000 proposed buyout, many saying they didn't want to pay Smith taxpayer dollars to leave.

At that meeting, board members told Smith communication needed to improve moving forward. Smith told the Times Free Press last week he planned to remain superintendent and finish out the remaining three-and-a-half years of his contract.

Smith's decision to step down came just a day after the Times Free Press wrote about a report sent by the Tennessee Department of Education to the school system in January criticizing the district's leadership for failing to turn around five of its lowest-performing schools. Smith never gave the school board a copy of the report.

The school board did receive an email Saturday from Hamilton County Assistant Superintendent Robert Sharpe, after he spoke with the Times Free Press. Sharpe notified the school board he had spoken to the paper about the recent report and the work taking place in the iZone schools.

The report was not attached to the email, and several school board members said Monday they were shocked at how scathing it was and frustrated it was never forwarded to them.

School board member Donna Horn said she was horrified at how the schools mentioned in the report were not making significant progress with millions of dollars being pumped into them.

"And I was even more concerned that the board was not privy to this information before it hit the press," Horn said. "This was a serious breakdown in communication."

School board member Rhonda Thurman agreed with Horn, saying she doesn't understand why the school board wasn't shown the report.

"Who thought it was a good idea for the board not to be given this information?" she asked.

On Saturday, Smith told the Times Free Press the report was sent to school administrators and not the board. He also said he delegated the work of addressing the report to members of his staff.

On Monday, Smith released a statement announcing he will retire on July 1 but will begin taking leave immediately. That means Hamilton County is joining the Nashville and Knoxville school systems in the hunt for new superintendents.

Smith did not return a request for comment, but said in a statement Monday morning that until an interim superintendent is named, day-to-day operations will be delegated to executive staff and administrative assistants.

Upon retiring, Smith will be entitled to a pension of about $95,000 a year, and he has accrued more than $234,000 in vacation pay and about $6,800 in sick pay, according to numbers previously provided to the paper by the school system. He will draw on some of this vacation time until officially retiring in July.

Smith served in the Hamilton County Schools system for more than three decades, working as a principal, coach and in several administrative roles. He has led the district for the past four years and during that time received high scores on evaluations from the board.

In his statement Monday, Smith said it was an honor to serve Hamilton County over the years.

"I would like to thank students, parents and especially all Hamilton County Department of Education employees for their support," he said. "My family and I wish only the very best for our Hamilton County public school system."

School board Chairman Jonathan Welch said the board will discuss the process for selecting an interim superintendent and a new superintendent during its meeting Thursday.

Most school board members in Hamilton County agreed Monday that Smith made the right decision by retiring.

School board member George Ricks said no one person is greater than the school system, and it is time for the system to move forward.

"We need to thank [Smith] for what he's done for the system and get to work," Ricks said.

Board member David Testerman, a vocal supporter of Smith during the past couple of months, agreed with Ricks, saying it's time for the school system to move on.

He said he respects Smith's decision to step down, adding Smith has received much more criticism than he deserves.

School board member Steve Highlander said he also respects Smith's decision to leave, and he wishes him and his family the best.

Highlander said he could not justify using tax dollars to buy out Smith's contract and is glad the board did not vote for that last week.

"Smith said he wanted to do what was best for the school system, and I think he did it," Highlander said.

School board member Greg Martin, who voted against the proposed buyout and made a motion during last week's meeting to fire Smith for cause, said, "I'm glad Rick Smith made the right decision for his family and for Hamilton County.

"I'm very optimistic about the school system's future."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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This story was updated March 14 at 11:30 p.m. with additional information.