The chairman of the Hamilton County school board insists the 5-3 vote to hire Rick Smith as superintendent Thursday night was not forced by political "good old boys" and said he didn't push the vote because he is a puppet of the County Commission.
But Board of Education members who voted against Smith's hire and the four-year contract stipulating his $163,500 annual salary said they are embarrassed by the decision, calling the process to select Smith unprofessional, secretive and politically motivated.
"I have never talked to a single county commissioner about (Jim Scales') buyout or the contract. Rick Smith is not a good old boy. He's a lifetime educator," board Chairman Mike Evatt said after the meeting in which discussion was brusque, lasting no longer than 30 minutes.
Board member Linda Mosley, who voted with George Ricks and Jeffrey Wilson against the hiring of Smith, said, "We are really selling ourselves short."
A large crowd sat or stood in the board meeting room and crowded into the hallway outside, with some hoping to speak about the issue, but public comments weren't allowed.
Angel Ulmer came to the meeting with a prepared statement about why the school board should search across the nation for the best superintendent.
"What are we showing our students when we're not looking for the most qualified person?" Ulmer said after the board vote.
Also attending the meeting was state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who called Wednesday for school board member Rhonda Thurman to resign after Thurman was quoted in Sunday's Times Free Press saying that poor inner city schools were getting too much money without a lot of payoff and "slaves learned to read."
Favors, wearing a bright red suit and hat and sitting in the front row, said Thursday that Smith's supporters on the board - Thurman, Joe Galloway, Everett Fairchild, Mike Evatt and David Testerman - have set a terrible example for students by changing board policies to accommodate one person and refusing to conduct a search for the best candidate, including someone with a doctoral degree.
In June, the board voted 5-3 to change its policy of holding a series of meetings, possibly conducting an outside search and doing public interviews before selecting a superintendent.
Favors said she still thinks Thurman's comments about inner-city students reflect racist attitudes.
Thurman, who has said the superintendent position should be filled locally and has remained a vocal supporter of Smith, didn't respond to Favors' criticisms at Thursday's board meeting and didn't offer an apology.
"I'm glad it's over," Thurman said after the vote.
Some at the meeting, including former County Commission candidate Red Burrows, thought it wasn't Thurman who was wrong, but Favors.
"Some people came to stir up trouble," he said. "That's why that state representative in the red hat is here."
On the other hand, he said, Thurman has dealt with the issue.
"Rhonda has more - a lot of people would say testicles - but more boldness than anybody else up there," he said.
Thurman was a longtime political opponent of former superintendent Jim Scales. On May 26, the school board voted 6-3 to buy out Scales' contract, which will cost the county between $285,000 and $300,000.
Once Thursday's meeting adjourned, Ed Gravitte, 81, stood up and told his wife, who taught in Hamilton County for 37 years, that he'd been waiting for this day for five years. In 2006, the school voted to hire Scales; Smith had withdrawn his name from consideration as superintendent.
In 2009, Gravitte's son, Eddie, was suspended from his position as principal of Signal Mountain Middle/High School and is now assistant principal at East Hamilton Middle/High.
Smith's experiences as a teacher, football coach, principal and deputy superintendent, Gravitte said, will help him move the school district forward. And, he added, Smith is a local.
Board members took fire at one another during the meeting, and both Evatt and Thurman were ready to defend the deal with Smith.
Evatt said he drafted the agreement with Smith himself while Evatt was on vacation this week. He said Smith accepted the $163,500 salary after a three-minute conversation. Smith's current pay is more than $115,000 a year.
Wilson, who was among several board members who hadn't seen the contract before Thursday's meeting, said he wanted to know why Smith didn't hire a lawyer or want to discuss the terms.
Responding to Wilson, Thurman said a school board member had drawn up Jim Scales' renewal contract, then voted it through with a majority without showing it to certain board members.
On Thursday, Smith announced a series of appointments he'd made to jobs at the Central Office, including an assistant superintendent and the directors of middle schools and high schools.
Wilson said Smith shouldn't have made appointments before being officially named superintendent. Without an open search for those jobs, the process is unfair, Wilson said.
"This has become a debacle," he said. "This is not done right. It doesn't look right."
Mosley wanted to know why Smith hadn't pursued a doctoral degree during his six years as deputy superintendent if he wanted the school's top post and knew such degrees were the standard for the last two Hamilton County superintendents.
"I've tried to weigh the responsibilities of the job with being away from the job," Smith said. "Getting a Ph.D. - that is something people do in our profession. I don't necessarily think it's a qualifier or should be a disqualifier."
"Sometimes people are educated beyond their ability to comprehend," he said, and some people in the crowd gasped.
Lowering the standard now would force the board to make a huge financial leap later if they want to get another superintendent with a doctoral degree, Wilson said.
Thurman said the school board was saving big dollars by making the deal with Smith. Scales' pay was $58,000 higher than what was offered to Smith, and Scales didn't have to pay his health insurance, which Smith will be required to do.
Scales also received a $50,000 signing bonus and $25,000 travel expenses, all points left out of Smith's contract, Thurman said.
"I think those things are huge," she said.
"I hope you know what you are asking for," Ricks said to Smith.
"I never got in it for the money," Smith told the board.
"We are going to work you," Ricks said.