Cooper: Jill Levine hiring fuels intrigue

Jill Levine interviews for the position of interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Jill Levine interviews for the position of interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.

The agreement apparently was sealed for Jill Levine to become a major player in interim schools Superintendent Kirk Kelly's regime, according to various sources, before the two ever left the Hamilton County Board of Education offices after Kelly's election last week.

So much for the transparency Kelly promised in his interview before school board members on April 21.

Levine's hiring Wednesday as the district's chief academic officer - a new position - also skirts discussion and a vote by the board at least until its next meeting. In her new post, she will report directly to Kelly.

District 7 school board member Donna Horn didn't fault the appointment - "great choice, perfect fit" - but, like others, felt "protocol" merited "some kind of [board] discussion."

"I don't like surprises," she said. "And this was one of the main problems before - communication."

The move also instantly created intrigue within the schools' central office, which already has been roiled by poor state Report Card scores, the pool cue rape of an Ooltewah High School basketball player in December, the handling of the Ooltewah incident and subsequent resignation by former Superintendent Rick Smith, and then the hiring of Kelly after a lackluster interview before the board.

- Did Kelly hire Levine, who also interviewed for interim superintendent, as a hedge for his job? In other words, is he angling for the permanent job and have her run the show?

- Did the two make a deal where she serves as his top assistant now and then he backs her for superintendent once a search for a permanent superintendent is opened (and he can go back to his position as assistant superintendent over accountability and testing)?

- Had Kelly already been assured he'll have the same five votes to make him superintendent (as voted for him to be interim), so he felt free to begin making significant personnel changes?

Levine, popular at Normal Park Museum Magnet School where she was principal, interviewed well for the interim superintendent's post and is known as an innovator.

It's the timing, the lack of approval by the school board and the lack of transparency that raises eyebrows.

With just a month to go in the school year, it is unclear how much Levine can do to make a real difference this year. And the school board could - though almost surely won't - settle on a permanent superintendent with his or her own ideas about personnel by mid-June, so there was no urgent need to put her in the central office until it was certain she wouldn't get the job.

Kelly, in his position, certainly has a right to make changes in his education cabinet, but the announcement that two additional assistant superintendents will be hired who would report to Levine is puzzling. The public already believes the district's central office is bloated, so adding two more members seems odd. If the shuffling moves some people out of the office and back into schools so the moves are budget neutral, that's one thing. If it doesn't, the public should be concerned.

We have said before the Hamilton County Schools are at a critical juncture and should consider making wholesale changes. But we expect those changes to be managed carefully and not to create the appearance of backroom deals.

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