The dust hasn't even cleared from a roiling controversy over his hiring, and new Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith already is gearing up to cut as many as 30 jobs to ease a $17.8 million deficit.
Among those would be about 10 central office jobs, two assistant principal positions and four teacher trainers in urban schools. He also proposes eliminating benefits for contracted bus drivers and cutting half the capital expense budget.
Smith, who was hired Thursday in a 5-3 vote by the school board, has met with board members about the plan and expects pushback on some of his proposed cuts.
But school board Chairman Mike Evatt said drastic changes are needed.
"I am not real happy with some of the school-based cuts we are going to make," Evatt said. "I don't want to see anyone cut if possible, but sometimes you have to."
Smith outlined his immediate plans a day after he was appointed amid some hard feelings over former Superintendent Jim Scales' sudden departure and frustration over a majority school board decision not to search for an outside candidate.
"I'm glad last night has come and gone," Smith said Friday, referring to the disagreement over his hiring and emotions that came to a head the evening before. "Now I want to work with all the school board members, whether they voted for me or not."
Smith emphasized that the needs of urban schools will be met and that he won't favor some schools over others.
"What I hope can happen is that some of the things that have been so emotional can settle down," Smith said. "I try to stay out of the politics. It's directed at a different issue and different person and not me."
The focus now, he said, should be on the tough decisions about what can stay and what has to go in the coming school year while maintaining a balanced budget. The school system, with a total budget of more than $350 million, originally projected a $14.4 million deficit, but that number jumped after the state approved across-the-board teacher pay increases of 1.6 percent, Smith said.
Deeper employee cuts can be avoided because of an agreement signed this year with the Hamilton County Education Association that raised individual health care premiums from $25 to $100, amounting to a total savings of $4.8 million.
Smith said the system originally planned to hire 55 new teachers to accommodate an anticipated 500 more students, but that has been reduced to 45 teachers.
During his few weeks as interim superintendent, while dealing with how the system would address its fourth straight year of budget cuts, Smith was also in the middle of a heated debate over how the school board should search for a new superintendent.
In May, the school board voted 6-3 to buy out Scales, who had been in the job for five years. The buyout will cost the county $285,000 to $300,000.
Not long after Scales was voted out, Smith was voted in as interim superintendent. Smith's own job as deputy superintendent under Scales had been on the chopping block in Scales' proposed budget for next year.
A majority of the school board - Rhonda Thurman, Evatt, David Testerman, Everett Fairchild and Joe Galloway - voted to change the board's longstanding minimum qualifications and hiring policy to fast-track Smith for the permanent position.
They said the system needed a local insider who could navigate county politics and knew area educators. Despite requests from some community members and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, board members decided against conducting a national or statewide search. Smith, who has worked in local schools more than 25 years, was their man, they said.
But a smaller group on the board said the move was wrong, short-sighted and smacked of favoritism. On Thursday, board members Linda Mosley, George Ricks and Jeffrey Wilson voted against Smith's four-year contract, which comes with a $163,500 annual salary. Scales made more than $202,000 a year.
"This has become a debacle," Wilson said Thursday night at the school board meeting. "This is not done right. It doesn't look right."
Now, Smith and Evatt said they need to work on mending fences and convincing those opposed to Smith's hiring that he will put the education of urban and suburban students as the top priority.
District 1 board member Thurman sparked a fiery debate last Sunday when she said in a front-page story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she thought suburban schools were being slighted because so much support had been pumped into urban schools with little to show for it.
Challenges at urban schools do require additional support and their needs will be met, Smith said. He also said that relationships with the Public Education Foundation and the Benwood Foundation, which funneled considerable financial support to inner-city and other struggling schools, will continue to be fostered under his watch.
Magnet schools, a favorite target of Thurman's, also will continue to thrive, he said.
"I have always embraced every part of our community," he said. "I'll come to work every day and prove that."
Still, upcoming decisions about whom to keep and who to let go could aggravate anger over Smith's appointment. Principal posts at Daisy Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary and Lookout Valley Middle and Red Bank Middle need to be filled, and Smith said he will appoint principals differently than Scales did.
Four years ago, Scales began naming principals from a group of candidates who were vetted by committees consisting of community members, teachers and school board representatives. Smith said he won't use those committees and instead will rely on feedback from administrators to make his decision.
On Thursday, before he was appointed superintendent, Smith named an assistant superintendent, Lookout Valley Middle/High Principal Lee McDade. He also chose a middle school director, high school director and human resources director for the entire school system.
"It's a different time," Smith said. "I've been here the better part of three decades. The people I've appointed, I've worked with."
Contact Joan Garrett at email@example.com or 423-757-6601.