Cooper: Buyout better of two bad choices for Hamilton County schools

Cooper: Buyout better of two bad choices for Hamilton County schools

February 20th, 2016 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, shown preparing to testify earlier this week in a hearing in Hamilton County Juvenile Court, is likely to get a contract buyout early next month.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

It is galling when the better choice may be to give another Hamilton County Schools superintendent an expensive going-away present.

For the members of the Hamilton County Board of Education, the choice is whether to give Rick Smith a $269,000 buyout (with more than three years remaining on his contract) or fire him.

The superintendent himself asked for a buyout earlier this month when the water got hot around him after his lack of communication about the alleged pool-cue rape of an Ooltewah High School basketball player by teammates in Gatlinburg in December.

The school board, in turn, gave its attorney, Scott Bennett, permission to work out a settlement. In hindsight, that was probably a hasty decision, but that brought the story up to Thursday night, when the settlement was first discussed.

At least one school board member, George Ricks, said Smith deserved the buyout for his three decades of service, though most school district employees with the same experience would be laughed at if they asked for such a settlement.

At least one member, Rhonda Thurman, said she could not support a buyout, asserting that if an employee wants to leave he should leave.

And at least one member, Joe Galloway, said Smith just shouldn't leave, arguing that Smith has more knowledge about the school system than all other employees combined.

That said, chances are the superintendent will have the votes for a buyout next month.

Firing him would likely encourage him to file a lawsuit, which would be both expensive and protracted at a time when the district already is embroiled in the rape case, in a lawsuit against the state for failing to fully fund its BEP 2.0 program, and in trying to support the countywide education initiative Chattanooga 2.0.

The settlement amount is roughly equal to Smith's pay for the rest of this school year and one more. His annual pay, according to the Hamilton County Department of Education, is $198,966.47. He also would be due any vacation or sick days he has earned, and he will have a sizable pension given his years in the system.

Had the matter been taken to court and a determination made that the school board should pay him for the rest of his contract — not a certainty, of course — his take would have roughly been $650,000.

A buyout is especially odious considering the school board has chosen this path before — for previous superintendents Jesse Register in 2006 and Jim Scales in 2011.

The buyout terms for Scales were similar to those worked out for Smith, according to Times Free Press archives. He received a full year's pay, reimbursement for vacation and sick time, and health insurance for the rest of the year. He also received legal fees associated with the buyout negotiation. The entire package was estimated to have cost between $285,000 and $300,000.

Register announced an official retirement but was voted a $150,000 fee for the next year by the school board — a "business" decision, the retiring superintendent called it — to be a consultant to the school district and to national foundations. Halfway through his consultant year, the then-school board chairman said Register had not been asked to do anything specific. Meanwhile, the former superintendent said he had been serving as an adviser for school reform for an institute, helping review central offices in schools elsewhere, working on a book, serving on the graduate faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, playing golf and raking leaves. He later went on to head Metro Nashville schools for six and a half years.

Smith, in the end, is probably neither the on-top-of-it-all leader Galloway portrayed him to be nor the tone deaf administrator he appeared to be when the Ooltewah case first broke open. He got caught in a situation that began only hours before Christmas Day, had to sort out information that was hardly clear even weeks later and made a calculated decision not to share as much about the incident as he should have.

Whether his handling of that case is enough to fire him, or whether the rest of his solid if not spectacular tenure is enough to mitigate the case, is now unlikely to be adjudicated.

A buyout, despite the leadership gap it will leave in the school district and the sour taste in the public's mouth, is the only viable choice.

More Ooltewah rape case stories

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