Sohn: It's school crunch time, and we have status quo

The Hamilton County Board of Education voted to name Kirk Kelly interim superintendent Thursday.

The misguided rationale Thursday for a Hamilton County Board of Education vote to keep the status quo in the school system's central office was, from board member Steve Highlander: "This is the school year's crunch time."

It's crunch time so, despite the change everyone - even the school board - is calling for in our schools, the majority of the board voted to keep things the same. They voted to name Kirk Kelly, the longtime assistant superintendent of testing and accountability, as the new interim schools superintendent.

Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. It seems a bit like noticing a skillet of grease flaming on your stove but choosing not to grab the fire extinguisher because you have to finish sweeping the floor.

Of course it's crunch time. It's been crunch time for years.

It was crunch time the first moment anyone noticed that a growing percentage of our third and fourth-graders were not reading at grade level. And the person keeping the watch was - yes - Kirk Kelly. Now, by the way, six in 10 of those kids cannot read at their grade level.

But it's "crunch time" in the school year, so concerns like jaw-dropping hazing/rapes and plummeting test scores and devastated teacher morale and survey results showing that more than 83 percent of community members want a change agent in the superintendent's seat all were swept aside in a 5-4 vote.

We have to wonder what in the name of all goodness these five school board members who voted for Kelly - retired educators Joe Galloway, David Testerman and Highlander, and George Ricks and Karitsa Mosley - were thinking? Board members Donna Horne and Jonathan Welch voted for Normal Park Museum Magnet Principal Jill Levine, who gave a very strong interview. Board members Greg Martin and Rhonda Thurman voted for Retired Marine Col. Shaun Sadler, whose interview also was impressive.

Sadly, here's what parents and grandparents in Hamilton County may be thinking: Where's the off-ramp to the best private school we can afford?

Equally sad are the whispers of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, East Ridge, maybe even Soddy-Daisy and Collegedale, thinking they might start planning to split off and form their own school systems.

In fairness, Kelly is a truly nice and good man, but his answers to board questions about how he would change the culture of the central office - which even he says should be changed - were vague non-answers. He would go to the school campuses and talk to educators. He would ask the students about ways to bring them back up to grade level. He would "start earlier" asking students what career they want. What?

To help at the system's lowest-performing schools, known as "priority schools" he would retest more of our students on the ACT because studies show that usually raises their scores. Huh? Isn't this the man who told school board members a few months ago that testing takes up too much learning time?

But the really choice moment of Kelly's interview was when he himself said to board members that they might ask him why he didn't work to change the culture since he has, in his own words, "been here a long time and I've got a passion for making things better."

Only he asked that question, and no board member followed up to say, OK - tell us why.

Both of the other candidates, by the way, went well beyond the very soft-ball questions asked of them, and each board member commented that any of the three candidates would make good interim superintendents while the board conducts a search for a new permanent leader.

If this board runs true to form, however, that search will be a waste of time and money.

There surely will be a search - in between four of the board members running for re-election in August. And after the search, our intrepid board members may very well vote - probably 5-4 again - to make Kelly the permanent superintendent.

They've done it before, and they could do it again. It's how we got the last superintendent and how we got where we are now.

As residents of this county, we seem to have but two hopes left: The shaping of a Chattanooga 2.0 blueprint that perhaps can be incorporated into our schools, and the upcoming August elections.