Jim Scales, Hamilton County school board agree to buyout

Jim Scales, Hamilton County school board agree to buyout

May 11th, 2011 by Adam Crisp in News

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales announces during a news conference Tuesday that he has reached a tentative buyout agreement to leave the system. Staff Photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press


The Hamilton County Board of Education will meet May 26 and is expected to approve the buyout of schools Superintendent Jim Scales's contract.

For the second time in 15 years, Hamilton County Schools will begin a search for a new leader.

Superintendent Jim Scales, on the job since 2006, announced Tuesday that he had agreed to an early buyout of his contract, and that he will exit the school system July 1.

Scales made it clear at a Tuesday afternoon news conference that he intended to stay on the job until his contract expired in June 2012, but that Board of Education members had signaled it was time to part ways.

"From my perspective, things were moving along in the district positively. ... The initiation of this process did not come from me and my family. It came from the board," he said.

School board attorney Scott Bennett said he began buyout talks with Scales' personal attorney in February at the board's direction, and this week the terms of the agreement were reached.

Since Scales was asked to leave early, his contract requires the school system to pay the balance of his pay and to buy out his sick and vacation time. That amounts to at least $202,000, which is his base annual salary.

Without saying specifically what Scales would be paid for his early departure, Bennett said the terms of the contract are being fulfilled. The buyout agreement will be made public later this week, he said.

Board members must approve the terms of the agreement, and a called meeting has been set for May 26. State law requires a 15-day notice before a superintendent's buyout is approved.

POLL: Should Hamilton schools buy out Jim Scales' contract?

Scales is the second superintendent to lead the combined Hamilton County Schools. He followed Jesse Register, who served for a decade following the merger of the city and county schools systems in 1997. Register now is superintendent of Metro Nashville City Schools.

Like Scales, Register left his post a year before his contract ran out. Register was paid $150,000 to serve as a consultant to the school district in the final year of his contract.

After the school board voted 8-1 to hire Scales in 2006, he signed a four-year, $194,000-a-year contract. In 2009, the school board approved a new four-year contract in a 5-4 vote.

Scales says he is leaving the school system stronger academically. He cited a handful of reading and math scores in which the county outperformed the state average or trailed just slightly.

Records show Scales also trimmed school system spending by roughly $26 million. Every year of his tenure he's cut the budget at the request of the Hamilton County Commission.

This year, Scales planned a large overhaul of his central office staff as part of sweeping budget cuts that could have, by his calculations, saved $700,000 annually.

But those cuts proved controversial. Board member Rhonda Thurman, agreeing a restructure was necessary, said it ultimately made sense to proceed with a central office overhaul with a new superintendent.

"If there are going to be some big changes, the new superintendent needs to be doing them," Thurman said. "Was it worth it to pay the $202,000 if we can reshape the template of the central office and save some money? I say yes."

Scales said he accepted the buyout because at some point, staying wouldn't be effective.

"This district doesn't exist so that I can be superintendent, and it doesn't exist so anybody can be a board member," Scales said. "It exists for us to provide for the educational needs of this community, our students, and when it comes to the point where there's that breakdown in communication, it probably serves no one any useful purpose to continue those struggles."

Board members enter Scales's eight-week departure period without a formal budget. Last week, the board delayed action on adopting a budget. They have an October deadline to decide how to best cut $14 million from its $368 million operating budget.

"No matter who is sitting in that chair, those cuts still have to be made," said board member Linda Mosley. "And now how do we pay for this buyout? I can't vote for it simply because we don't have the money."

Mosley and board members Chip Baker, George Ricks and Jeffrey Wilson all said they are in favor of letting Scales finish out his contract.

Scales's plan to trim his administrative budget included eliminating Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith's position. Briefly considered a candidate to succeed Register in 2006, Smith still is considered a likely replacement for the outgoing superintendent.

Reached Tuesday, Smith, a 22-year veteran of the school system, declined to comment on the matter, but Thurman said she'd like to see Smith be considered. She said she opposes a national search for a replacement.

"I think we have a lot of very qualified people right here," Thurman said. "No one cares more about Hamilton County than the people who have lived and worked here their whole lives."

Baker said he wanted Scales to finish out the contract because then the board could start a December national search for a replacement. He's not opposed to a local candidate, but he said he wants to examine all options.

"Our primary focus needs to be the budget right now," Baker said. "We've compounded the issues."