School board club's choice

School board club's choice

July 7th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Though it has not been officially announced, two members of the Hamilton County School Board confirmed to this page Wednesday that the board probably will vote today to name assistant superintendent Rick Smith, currently the interim superintendent, to the position of superintendent. If that happens, it will be without any solicitation or consideration of other applicants, and without any public participation in the selection process.

Appointment of Smith also will make it regrettably clear that at least a majority of the nine-member board has explicitly refused to reconsider their vote two weeks ago to jettison the codified standards for the selection in order to install Smith. These standards had required a national search for the most qualified candidate, full transparency and public forums and participation in a rigorous interview process, and a range of pertinent criteria.

Among other things, a public process would have considered candidates' qualifications and background and given preference to a candidate with a doctorate degree, which Smith doesn't possess. It would have showcased candidates' strategic vision for education, programs and curriculum, and it would have addressed leadership skills and innovative ideas.

Had this opportunity for finding the best superintendent been preserved, the community, as well, could have been engaged in a meaningful discussion of issues currently on the minds of school patrons here: magnet and charter schools, multi-track curriculum, rezoning vs. new school buildings, teacher mentoring, leadership tracks and training for principals, student diversity, ways to improve academic excellence and pursuit of higher education.

As it is, the five members of the school board who voted to gut the requirements of the codified guidelines for selecting a new superintendent - Everett Fairchild, Rhonda Thurman, Mike Evatt, David Testerman and Joe Galloway - have apparently satisfied themselves privately that Smith is the person they want, and never mind the broader public's interest in the path of public schools.

Ironically, the rush to make Smith superintendent apparently will spring in a highjacked work-session meeting that board member Linda Mosley had requested to discuss the parameters for selecting a new superintendent and contract and salary issues. Mosley said she finds the pending appointment of Smith without a broader, public process "deeply disillusioning and disappointing."

"I think it sets us back 30 years," she said.

She's correct. For starters, the selection process represents a return to the misguided nexus of old, parochial cliques in the county school board and the County Commission that favor a system where a few unqualified public officials assert control over the school system's educational programs, and casually force self-interested hiring choices via control of the superintendent's office.

The forced ouster of Dr. Jim Scales, like that of his predecessor, Dr. Jesse Register, was driven by members of the board and the commission who are most biased in favor of suburban schools and most opposed to innovative efforts to elevate performance among students and teachers in urban schools. Thurman, for instance, has publicly railed against magnet schools, minority-to-majority transfers, and innovative, foundation-funded programs designed to boost inner-city schools.

Worse, the County Commission has grossly interfered in the capacity and viability of public schools - first by withholding needed funding for so long over the past 12 years in order to bend the school board and superintendent's office to its will, and secondly by pushing politically aligned members onto the school board.

The appointment of Smith represents the commission's victory over - and against - two reform superintendents who dedicated themselves to establishing an equitable school system that would work equally as well for minorities as for students in the mainly white suburban schools.

The broader public interest remains at stake in this ongoing struggle. For whatever reason or promises Smith is the choice of these cliques, his most important job will be to respect, and represent, the broader public interest in an equitable and fair public school system that will improve the broad community and the economic progress the public now envisions. If he intends to do well, that must be his first priority.