The school board's choices

The school board's choices

May 28th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Following years of hostility from the backward-looking factions of both the school board and the County Commission, the school board's split vote Thursday to buy out Superintendent Jim Scales' contract for approximately $300,000 was expected and anti-climatic. It was also shamefully wrong. It smacks of a return to a parochial, racially biased system, just when the community stands at the threshold of the greatest economic opportunity in the city's history.

Scales is the second of the two superintendents hounded out of office since the 1997 merger of the former city and county school systems by officials who fail to grasp the keys to the future: the necessity of focused initiatives to improve the education of urban minority students, and the necessity of improving funding to propel the school system to excellence.

Where politics reigns

The myopic factions that now seem in charge mainly want good-old-boy politics and puppet-string kowtowing from the superintendent to the parochial views that used to be the norm between the county governing body and the prior county school system.

Indeed, it is the County Commission's hostage power of the purse which has enabled the Fred Skillern-led faction of the commission to keep squeezing the school budget and exerting political pressure on the board and the superintendents. His unyielding grip frustrated, hobbled and eventually ended the tenures of Dr. Jesse Register in 2006, and of Scales this week.

The irony is fully transparent. The very programs that Register initiated in Hamilton County after the merger of the two prior school systems - programs that Dr. Scales supported - are precisely what the school system has needed. Yet the political and school board figures against both men have opposed both their programs and the superintendents' independent vision.

Ousted for success

Register was snapped up by the Metro Nashville school system after two years as a consultant. Nashville's school board just gave him a great rating and on Wednesday renewed his contract for four more years. He has been praised for creating in Nashville some of the programs he initiated here to mitigate busing and raise achievement for all students: magnet schools with a variety of curriculums, transfers for minorities to majority schools, innovative curriculum, a single-standard diploma, more use of technology, and reconstitution of teaching staffs in minority schools with large numbers of failing students.

The commission faction led by Skillern and former Commissioner Curtis Adams succeeded in forcing Register's departure in 2006 by forcing budget cuts and denying him a tax increase for the school budget for six years. Now the commission has done the same to Scales.

This year, the commission is forcing the school board to cut another $14 million from its projected costs for a status quo budget. Scales had drawn up such a budget, bringing to $35 million the amount he cut from same-service budgets since he arrived five years ago.

There are few places to cut. The school spends around 85 percent of its budget on teachers' salaries, and the remainder on school bus transportation, books, technology and food service. The school budget - which is transparent and online - has been excessively lean for more than a decade.

It's been further hampered by the state's refusal to make good on the second installment of the catch-up state funding formula that for years left Hamilton County with the lowest level of state funding, per student, in the state. Just half of the $25 million in BEP catch-up funding promised by Gov. Phil Bredesen has been received since the BEP revision in 2007. The second half has been indefinitely postponed due to the recession's impact on state tax revenue.

Though hobbled financially, Scales still managed to raise graduation rates and improve achievement gains, but that wasn't enough to ensure his tenure. The 5-4 split on the board that had favored him lost ground last fall. Elections of three new board members put the parochial anti-Scales faction led by Rhonda Thurman, a Skillern protégé, on top by a different 5-4 grouping.

In the subsequent election for a new school board president, board member Everett Fairchild reversed a promise to support Linda Mosley, pushed her aside to take the chair himself, and immediately began brokering the terms for Dr. Scales' buyout.

Picking a successor

Scales made his exit as gracefully as possible, but it seems doubtful that the anti-Scales faction will now act correctly in securing a new superintendent. They immediately installed assistant superintendent Rick Smith, their perennial favorite, as interim superintendent Thursday after the vote to end Scales' tenure. Current board policy would prevent the interim chief from becoming the next full-time superintendent, but Smith's supporters are considering dropping the provision and making him the new superintendent.

The Chamber of Commerce has correctly called on the board to conduct a national search for a new superintendent. Chamber CEO Tom Edd Wilson said a national search would ensure the most innovative candidate.

Future vision crucial

We urge the board, as well, to mount a national search. The school system needs a strong and visionary leader - one qualified by broad experience as well as a doctoral degree (Smith is not a Ph.D.) - to lead the increasingly diverse school system in a time of great economic and work-place challenges over the next decade.

Planners believe that Hamilton County, with a population now of roughly 340,000, may add 65,000 more residents over the next decade as growth spurred by new employers in the wake of Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical and Amazon takes hold, and as word spreads of EPB's nation-leading gigabyte fiber-optic capacity for all customers.

Hamilton County stands at the brink of unparalleled and previously unimagined opportunity. This is no time for archaic politics and parochial, mediocre leadership. We need an excellent and well-funded public school system, led by a visionary superintendent, to make the most of this opportunity.