Sohn: All eyes on the school board as vote for interim superintendent nears

Members of the Hamilton County School Board chat prior to the start of a meeting.
Members of the Hamilton County School Board chat prior to the start of a meeting.

This afternoon, the Hamilton County Board of Education will interview three people who want the job of interim schools superintendent.

The candidates are Kirk Kelly, Jill Levine and Shaun Sadler. And at least some of them have said privately that they want the job for longer than an interim period while the board conducts a national search for a new permanent superintendent.

Kelly is now acting co-superintendent and the former assistant superintendent of testing and accountability for Hamilton County schools. Levine is the principal at Normal Park Museum Magnet School who served a year as a Principal Ambassador Fellow in Washington, D.C. Sadler is a retired commanding officer with the United States Marine Corps who has been recruited to seek the position by community leaders now pushing Chattanooga 2.0 - a Chamber of Commerce-backed movement to improve our schools because local employers are having difficultly finding jobs-ready workers.

After this afternoon's interviews, it seems probable the nine-member board will vote tonight to decide which one of the candidates will lead our broken school system.

We think a vote tonight may be a mistake unless the board makes some very stiff stipulations, not the least of which is that the candidate chosen on this vote will only - repeat, only - be an interim superintendent.

This is the second time the school board has accepted applications for the interim position this year. Five people applied in early March, when many expected the school board was going to buy out or fire former Superintendent Rick Smith after three months of unending controversies - shockingly low test scores and the hazing/rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman, allegedly by three of his basketball teammates.

The school board, which has been known to make and reverse decisions like the wind changes direction, instead voted 5-4 to retain Smith rather than give him a buyout. Smith announced he would retire a week later.

On March 17, the school board reopened the search for an interim superintendent and voted 6-3 to make the only qualification for the position a bachelor's degree - the state's minimum requirement. That move would allow non-educators, like Sadler, a chance at the job, as well as open up the possibility for dispassionate and long-needed house cleaning in the central office. But the board also decided at that meeting that an interim superintendent could be considered for the permanent superintendent position, opening the door to usher in more of the same benign neglect we've seen for years in a system that has pandered to schools filled with white, middle-class students while largely ignoring continuing problems in schools where poverty reigns.

Jill Levine, principal at Normal Park Museum Magnet School, said if chosen she will work to ensure that every student in the county has access to an innovative, engaging and purposeful education that prepares them for college or career.

"We must continuously ask ourselves what percentage of our children have access to high quality education in Hamilton County," Levine said in a prepared statement Thursday.

That's an interesting pledge, since Levine, whose children attend McCallie School, gained her reputation as a principal who can improve a school's outcomes in part by persuading the school board to zone children in a nearby poor neighborhood out of the Normal Park Museum Magnet zone that now mostly serves trendy North Chattanooga.

Kirk Kelly, as assistant superintendent of testing and accountability, has been in charge of the very programs that we parents and community supporters have found desperately lacking.

In August he told the school board that an increase in testing time due to the state's change to TNready tests would mean seven weeks devoted to testing. Since the tests take 37 hours, according to the state's website, we have to assume that seven weeks - almost 20 percent of the system's total educational time - includes prep time. If not, then it's a fair question to ask if Kelly and then-Superintendent Smith led the school board into an angry tizzy over the testing time simply to avoid talking in depth about Hamilton County students scoring below state average in nine of 10 categories in last year's TCAP tests. Accountability.

Not that prep time for tests is all bad: The children are still learning. But if teachers are having to prep students, it means our youngsters have not already learned enough to pass exams designed to show whether they are performing at grade level. The Tennessee Department of Education last September gave our school system the lowest possible rating on system performance based on the lack of gains our students made over the previous year. Accountability.

That brings us to Sadler, the retired Marine commander. The candidate who's not an educator. The big unknown who has recently said he reapplied for the job after Smith resigned because he sees an incredible opportunity to improve the school system for the community and benefit students both educationally and vocationally.

"There is a huge job in front of us to get this program turned around and headed in the right direction," he said, adding that significant changes within the school system are needed.

That's the key phrase: Significant changes within the school system are needed.

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