Ominous turn for schools

Ominous turn for schools

September 18th, 2010 in Opinion Times

The sudden turn of events at the school board meeting Thursday is ominous not just for Superintendent Jim Scales. It also suggests serious meddling in the school board's business by several county commissioners, particularly Fred Skillern. And it clearly signals a hard shift toward the revanchist, racist old guard that still yearns for a school system like the one the county used to have before the merger of the separate city and county school systems in 1997. That would be a system that favors the outlying, mainly white schools over the needs of urban schools.

All this became transparent this week when veteran school board member Everett Fairchild, at the urging of Skillern, reversed his pledge to help elect Linda Mosley as chairman of the school board, and, instead, ran against her. His election to the post Thursday night on the emergence of a revised and newly dominate bloc of five on the nine-member school board further honed both the power and the attitude shift.

Mr. Fairchild himself punctuated the point when he announced as soon as he was elected that his first order of business would be to hold a board work session to discuss the performance and evaluations of Dr. Scales. Such scrutiny apparently is intended to force Dr. Scales to take a buyout of the 18-month remainder of his term, and clear the way to appoint a new superintendent. We urge Dr. Scales to resist such pressure.

It requires no leap to suggest that a successful effort to remove Superintendent Scales, who is black and who was brought here from Texas after a national search, could well be followed by installation of Rick Smith, an assistant superintendent holdover from the old county school system who has long been regarded by Skillern and school board member Rhonda Thurman as the superintendent-in-waiting.

It's no secret that Smith, who does not have a doctorate in education, has wanted the superintendent's job since the merger of the former city-county systems, and that he is favored by the Skillern bloc on the County Commission, and the newly pre-eminent Thurman bloc on the school board. Fairchild's reversal, which came possibly because he has never favored Scales and likes Smith, a fellow Hixson resident, was essential to the Skillern-Thurman agenda. It is nonetheless surprising and disheartening. It threatens a sharp change of course for the school system.

Since 1997, the dominant school board bloc has been progressive. Under former Superintendent Jesse Register's tenure and more recently under Scales, the board's majority has favored magnet schools to mitigate segregation and forced busing, and focused on improving both urban and suburban schools through more intense curriculum and enhanced teacher selection and training. School board members in favor of that agenda stood steadfastly behind former Superintendent Jesse Register even as county commissioners treated him and the school system badly.

Though Register knitted together the old city and county systems and vastly improved the system as a whole, the Skillern-led faction of the County Commission finally exhausted him by denying needed funding increases and making it clear it would not cooperate with Register to improve schools. When it ultimately forced him to take a buy-out of his contract and leave (Nashville has since welcomed him as its superintendent), the Skillern-Thurman blocs attempted to install Smith as superintendent. But they didn't yet have the power to steer the board away from Scales.

Now, power on the school board is in play. Fairchild, a lifelong teacher and principal, can yet be independent of the County Commission and the Thurman block, but his reversal to gain the chairmanship and his apparent intention to oust Scales is deeply troubling. The school system needs an independent, forward thinking superintendent with unique skills to oversee an urban/suburban system, and to keep the intrusive County Commission at bay. Fairchild's apparent agenda would undermine that capacity.

There is already too much entrenched, nagging history in the County Commission/school board relationship. Before the law was changed to provide elected school board members, commissioners used to appoint the board members. Their political power over their district board member was often abused: some commissioners used schools for patronage jobs and favors and virtually selected their principals. With a supplicant superintendent, they can still use their school funding power to coerce favors and steer school and educational policies.

School board members must be strong enough to resist intrusive political pressure from commissioners if they are to effectively and equitably serve students. But that dynamic now seems threatened. It will take vigilant public scrutiny and strong-minded board members, educators and teachers to keep the school properly independent and on the right track.