Interim head proposes trimming Hamilton schools' office jobs

Interim head proposes trimming Hamilton schools' office jobs

June 17th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Rick Smith, interim superintendent for the Hamilton County Board of Education, speaks to the Times Free Press on Thursday in his office at the Board of Education.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Plans are on the table for $1 million in cuts to the Hamilton County Schools' central office staff as long as interim Superintendent Rick Smith is at the helm.

Smith said Thursday he is proposing to trim jobs, although he wouldn't say how many, as a partial solution to the $14.4 million deficit facing the system. Some school board members said they are in full support of Smith's plan.

"We have to cut somewhere," said board member Linda Mosley, who has talked with Smith about the cuts.

Rhonda Thurman, who is pushing for Smith to be named permanent superintendent without a search for other candidates, said she is thrilled he is working to cut a staff levels that she calls bloated.

"I have been preaching about the waste," she said. "There are too many people that we don't need at the central office."

Several of the jobs being eliminated will come after the people now in them retire, including the human resources assistant superintendent, Smith said. He already eliminated the director of communications position, which paid an annual salary of $84,338.

"The biggest challenge is the budget," he said. "We are working really hard on balancing it. It's a difficult cut."

In an interview Thursday, Smith didn't discuss any other budget cuts he might be considering.

Smith, who was deputy superintendent and has worked at Hamilton County Schools for 15 years, wants to be named permanent superintendent.

Last month, the Board of Education elected him interim superintendent after voting 6-3 to offer then-Superintendent Jim Scales a $300,000 buyout to leave a year before his contract ran out.

On Tuesday, the board voted 5-3 to change the system's hiring policy for superintendents to allow for just a 15-day notice before hiring a new system leader. Previous policy required the board to conduct a series of meetings and approve a hiring timeline, although there was no set deadline for that to take place.

No vote has been scheduled to decide the future of the superintendent job, but several board members, especially Thurman, have said they want to move Smith quickly into the job.

"I don't see why we need an out-of-town person coming in here, someone we have to train," Thurman said. "Rick is his own person. I don't think he'll be easily bought."

But other board members and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce have spoken in favor of a statewide or national search for other job candidates.

Mosley said she plans to request a workshop with board members to discuss goals and pay today.

"I think it's the right thing to do," she said. "If Rick Smith turns out to be the victorious one, then I want that. I just want to make sure we are not overlooking another viable candidate."

It's a tough time for transition. Schools are under pressure to implement major education reforms passed in the last year in the state Legislature, including Race to the Top, and another round of budget slashing looms.

Despite the tasks facing the district and the controversy over his possible hiring, Smith said he has wanted the post for a long time. Five years ago he was a local candidate for the job, but withdrew his name after charges that a search advisory committee violated the state's open meetings law by choosing the finalists through secret ballots, according to Times Free Press archives.

"I wish to prevent further strife in the process and the community," Smith wrote in a March 2006 letter withdrawing his candidacy.

If he becomes superintendent now, Smith said, he's not concerned with the politics of the board and plans to shape up the central office by curbing waste and improving its communication with schools.

He wants to be more involved in training better principals and wants every principal to write an evaluation of central office services this fall, he said.

"For 15 years I've heard issues with the central office [from schools]," he said. "We have to reorganize ourselves where people see the value."