Cooper: School board faces its own high-stakes test

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith signals his intention to step down and seek a buyout of his contract at a Thursday meeting of the Hamilon County School Board.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith signals his intention to step down and seek a buyout of his contract at a Thursday meeting of the Hamilon County School Board.
When Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith resigned Thursday, he surely felt both a personal sense of relief - stemming from pressure building from criticism of his handling of alleged rape of an Ooltewah High School basketball player on a school trip in December - and perhaps a sense of relief for the district from the public outcry over the situation.

When he offered to step down, the Hamilton County Board of Education agreed to negotiate a buyout, but board members didn't buy any relief for themselves. They face the challenging task of naming Smith's successor - in the short and long runs.

An interim superintendent will be named, but politics immediately will become involved if the interim superintendent intends to be a candidate for the permanent position. And the search for a replacement is bound to be wrapped up in the same question the school board has wrestled with since the merger of the Chattanooga City and Hamilton County schools in 1997 - to hire from within or from outside the district.

If you hire from within, you are hiring someone who comes without the experience of superintendency but with a set of supporters and detractors, and someone who is comfortable in the current system and may not want to rock the boat.

If you hire from the outside, you are likely hiring an experienced superintendent who, at every moment of disagreement, would be questioned because "he(she) ain't from around here" and because "we've never done it that way."

After school board members hired and later essentially bought out two superintendents who weren't from here (Dr. Jesse Register and Dr. Jim Scales), they turned to Smith, a steady assistant superintendent who'd been in the system for several decades as a teacher and coach, as a political bridge builder. After the school board changed longstanding rules and fast-tracked his hiring, he led the district for four years. The school board gave him a glowing review last July and renewed his contract with a pay raise through July 2019.

But Smith may have ruffled the feathers last spring of those controlling the purse strings, the county mayor and the County Commission, and perhaps some in the community, with his quest for $34 million in additional funds for the schools through a possible tax increase.

School test scores, which didn't show as much progress in Hamilton County as was made in other areas of the state, didn't help matters any. So Smith's capital, once the Ooltewah case began to unfold, flagged, making a voluntary or forced resignation inevitable.

Unfortunately, his decision to step down with more than several months left in the school year once his buyout is secured not only will leave the system temporarily rudderless but will leave the Chattanooga 2.0 community education initiative without a district partner.

As the school board moves toward determining who will lead Hamilton County Schools, it also must determine the responsibility it bears in the rise and fall of Smith in six months - from high marks and a new contract in July to an imminent contract buyout, after what appears to be at worst a lack of communication with the community and school board about the alleged rape.

The school board's duties, after all, include responsibility "for the development of policy as guides for administrative action and for directing the director of schools (the superintendent) to implement its policies" and "for providing adequate and direct means for keeping the local citizenry informed about the schools and for keeping itself and the school staff informed about the needs and wishes of the public."

Going forward, the school district needs a leader who will be hard to find - a forward-thinking educator who can shake up the status quo, be politically connected enough to effect the changes necessary and do it all without spending an extra dime.

If the city and county are to make the progress suggested in the Chattanooga 2.0 report - improved education outcomes, which leads to better jobs, which leads to better lives - school board members must understand that their next hire is critical. The new schools leader must be someone who has a record of innovative success and must be someone with whom they can openly work. Whether that person is from the inside or the outside is less critical than whether the new leader understands that doing the same things in the same ways is no longer an option.

Smith's resignation may have temporarily relieved public pressure from those looking for a scapegoat in the Ooltewah case.

But the public should make sure the pressure builds just as intensely on the school board to choose a new leader to move the education of the county's students forward.

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