Could school board re-election impact decision on Rick Smith buyout?

Rhonda Thurman expresses her concern about paying the superintendent to leave the Hamilton County School system in this photo from a school board meeting.
Rhonda Thurman expresses her concern about paying the superintendent to leave the Hamilton County School system in this photo from a school board meeting.
photo Photographed Monday, June 1, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn., George Ricks, Sr., is a member of the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Four Hamilton County Board of Education members who will help decide Superintendent Rick Smith's future on March 7 say the fact that they are up for re-election in August won't affect their decision.

Since the Dec. 22 rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman, residents across the county have criticized the school system's handling of the incident, and many say the board shouldn't agree to Smith's request to buy out his contract.

But during last week's school board meeting, board members were divided, debating whether Smith should keep his job, be fired or leave with a nearly half-million-dollar buyout.

A buyout agreement was announced Feb. 18 after negotiations between school board attorney Scott Bennett and Smith's attorney, Leah Gerbitz. Smith would be paid $269,000 - about 35 percent of his contract that was renewed last year to run through July 2019. He would leave immediately and use accrued vacation days through June before retiring.

Separate from the buyout, Smith is entitled to an annual pension of about $95,000, more than $234,000 in vacation pay and about $6,800 in sick pay, according to numbers provided by Assistant Superintendent of Finance Christie Jordan.

Some local leaders and residents say Smith doesn't deserve a buyout and should be fired for cause for his poor handling of the rape and lack of communication with the board and the public over the attack.

In the middle of the crisis, board members Rhonda Thurman, Donna Horn, George Ricks and Jonathan Welch are up for re-election.

Thurman, who represents District 1, said the election is "absolutely not" influencing her decision to vote against the buyout. She believes there are grounds to fire Smith, and her constituents are telling her in calls and emails they agree.

"The response has been overwhelming which just confirms what I already decided to do," Thurman said.

Ricks, who represents District 4, said he has constituents for and against the buyout. He said he is going to vote for the buyout because it is the right thing to do.

"I do what I do and I do it for children," Ricks said.

Horn and Welch said they are not ready to discuss how they will vote.

Horn, who represents District 7, said the election is not influencing her as much as people might think. She said this is a huge decision, and she has been listening to the opinions of those who elected her.

"This can't be a Donna Horn decision," she said.

Welch, who represents District 2, said he will decide at the time of the vote for what he thinks is best for the school system.

As of Friday afternoon, two people have picked up papers to run against Horn, and one is planning to run against Ricks.

Qualifying for school board elections continues through April 7.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at or 423-757-6592.

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