Greeson: Superintendent Smith, and the rest of us, must do better by our students

Superintendent Rick Smith listens during a meeting Thursday at the Hamilton County Department of Education.
Superintendent Rick Smith listens during a meeting Thursday at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

None of us want to be judged by our worst moment. Not a person, not an organization, not a school system.

Yet, the Ooltewah basketball rape case represents the worst for the Hamilton County Department of Education. And the judging is unrelenting.

It's impossible not to be troubled by these events, but it's the future that needs our attention.

What's our next step as a community? What's the next move beyond grief and sympathy for the victim and our shock at those adults on the scene who mismanaged this every step of the way?

That next step is not as visceral as the emotional response when the story broke, and not as easy as the knee-jerk reaction to clear the halls at Bonny Oaks.

Some say it is time we exhort the school board to clear the leadership of the system, relieving Superintendent Rick Smith of his job and looking to start anew.

If that happens, it should not be because of the actions of the sick and the inaction of the coaches in the Ooltewah incident.

photo Jay Greeson

This is not to downplay the pain and scarring - both physical and emotional - of the victim, but this feels like an inflection point in the community's relationship with its public school system.

It's hard to make a wholehearted defense of Smith's tenure. In fact, when asking around, trying to make a case for keeping Smith - what has been his biggest accomplishment to date? - is way more difficult than coming up with a reason to fire him.

That said, when making a change in leadership, nine times out of 10, the first question must be: Who are we going to get who is better?

This raises the question of what are we, as citizens of Hamilton County, willing to sacrifice for our students. Sure, we all want the best school system possible, but more times than not over the past decade that has really been just lip service and a reason to pummel school leadership.

We did it with Jesse Register, who was said to be too much of an outsider. So we got Jim Scales, whose leadership we found lacking before we turned to Smith.

Smith was supposed to be the bridge that spanned the divide between school advocacy and county budget-makers.

In that regard, when trying to make a case for Smith to stay, his biggest failing has been the inability to get everyone on the same page on the system's needs.

So the question remains, what's next? Say the school board runs off Smith, what then?

At the end of the day, what do we want for our schools?

That this conversation - and the potential removal of top school administrators that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in buyouts - was jump-started by three bullies at a basketball tournament 200 miles away is quite telling.

There was not this much interest when the system's test scores showed scant progress. There was nowhere near this much interest when it became clear that our school facilities are falling in around our students.

There was not this level of interest when the recent lofty goals of Chattanooga 2.0 were announced. (This paper reported that after five months there were roughly 2,500 signatures - out of a goal of 10,000 - supporting the 2.0 goals. On average, 2,500 is about a quarter of the daily web clicks at on stories about the Ooltewah assault.)

The angst from the assault screams that we all want our students to be safe. That's a given.

But the overwhelming emotion and fervor and the storming of the gates at Smith's office also could be misidentified as the role we see our school system serving - as caretakers more than educators.

Is that where we are? If so, then we have all failed the system, and yes, that includes Smith and the leadership there.

If we are in a place where the height of expectation for our public schools is safety, then we better enjoy our moment in the sun as the "Best Town Anywhere" or whatever online contest we most recently clicked our way to winning.

You can blame Smith if you'd like, and that's fine because there's a lot of blame to go around.

But this has to change. The hearts and minds of children are at stake. And not inconsequentially, the future of our city.

Contact Jay Greeson at His "Right to the Point" column runs on A2 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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