Rick Smith's buyout plan riles Hamilton County school board members

Members of the Hamilton County Board of Education had mixed emotions Thursday night as they discussed a proposed buyout agreement with Superintendent Rick Smith.

The school board's attorney, Scott Bennett, notified the board he and Smith's attorney agreed on a separation agreement that would provide Smith with $269,000 - 35 percent of his contract that was renewed last year to run through July 2019.

If the board votes to accept that buyout on March 7, Smith would leave his job immediately and use accrued vacation days through the beginning of June.

School board member Rhonda Thurman said she is fine with Smith using up his accrued vacation time, but she will not vote to spend taxpayer dollars on a buyout.

"I can't wrap my mind around giving $269,000. If people want to leave, they just need to leave," Thurman said.

She said, in her opinion, Smith violated his contract by not keeping the board informed about what happened when an Ooltewah High School freshman was raped, allegedly by three teammates, during a basketball team trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., just days before Christmas.

School board member Joe Galloway said he is not sure Smith should leave, complimenting the job he has done leading the district.

"Smith knows more about this place than anyone else combined," Galloway said emotionally.

He added that, in his opinion, if the incident with the Ooltewah team had happened before or after the holidays everything would have been handled much differently.

School board member George Ricks said he thinks Smith and his family deserve a buyout for his three decades of service to the school district.

Ricks said a buyout is the right thing to do, and that if Smith is fired the board likely will have to spend more money dealing with the situation in court.

If the board approves the buyout or decides to fire Smith on March 7, an interim superintendent will be named at the meeting.

Ricks told the board he thinks it's time the school system has a woman in charge.

"We can find a strong mama out there," Ricks said. "Us guys have messed this up."

School board member Greg Martin said he would like the school board to consider candidates from outside of the school district, and Thurman agreed.

Bennett said in his time working with school boards he has never had a board consider an interim superintendent from outside of the school district, and typically ,the second in command takes over.

"This is outside the box," Bennett said. "We are making the box."

Bennett also told the board that despite all the unknowns that remain from the basketball team's trip to Gatlinburg, there is enough information now for them to begin moving forward and taking action.

He said there is a culture or tolerance of hazing within one or more segments of the Ooltewah High School community, and, at this time, it is not known if the problems are systemic of the school.

Bennett said there is at least some evidence that would suggest what happened to the 15-year-old Ooltewah student was the outcome of a culture. He said the best-case scenario for the school system is that the culture existed without anyone in authority knowing about it.

He suggested the board have an external organization investigate the school and help provide more extensive training to "help fix the culture."

During Thursday night's meeting, the school board also celebrated Black History Month by honoring John Franklin, who was Chattanooga's first black elected official. He served as the commissioner of education and health and also on the city school board.

School board member Karitsa Mosley, who introduced Franklin, said she works to imitate his service every day, calling him an inspiration for good leadership.

Franklin, 93, walked to the podium and thanked the board for what they've done, saying he knows how heavy the job can be. He got emotional as he mentioned what happened to the student at Ooltewah High School, and said he hopes the incident will help make the district more aware of what students need.

"We're going to grow because of what we've experienced," Franklin said.

Also during Thursday night's meeting, the board also passed two resolutions.

The first was brought by Galloway, who brought a resolution asking the board to send a letter asking that the Tennessee General Assembly and the Tennessee Board of Education not include TNReady test results this year in school, teacher or student evaluations.

The board voted unanimously to approve it.

TNReady is the state's new mandated assessment, replacing TCAP, and was designed to be taken online. After a failed attempt to administer the test online earlier this month, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that schools would return to taking the test on pencil and paper as in previous years.

Some educators and parents have been vocal against TNReady, saying it's consumed too much instructional time, and they have questioned the reliability of the test's results, due to all the changes that have taken place statewide this year.

School board Chairman Jonathan Welch also brought a resolution to the board asking it to support Chattanooga 2.0, a community-wide initiative aimed at improving public schools and better preparing Hamilton County residents for jobs.

The board voted 7-2 in support, with Thurman and David Testerman voting against.

Mosley told the board she knows of people all across the Southeast reading the Chattanooga 2.0 report, which provides a sobering picture of education in Hamilton County and also offers hope for how much better things could be for residents if more people were qualified to hold the glut of jobs arriving.

"This is a huge opportunity," Mosley said.

A high point for many in Thursday night's meeting was the honoring of schools for academic achievement. The packed room clapped for nearly five minutes as school after school was honored.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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