Sohn: The silver lining in Ooltewah's school heartbreak

School Superintendent Rick Smith talks to reporters after asking for a buyout of his contract at the Hamilon County School Board.
It's hard to know exactly what is more outrageous: That the coaches, the principal and perhaps even the Hamilton County schools superintendent were not all just fired outright over the past month since an Ooltewah High School basketball team hazing turned into a life-threatening aggravated rape, or that now the superintendent - at his request - may walk away from his job with up to $600,000 in his pocket.

That superintendent, Rick Smith, told the Board of Education Thursday night that he will step down, and he asked the board to buy out his contract which was just extended about six months ago until July 2019. Under the contract, Smith makes about $200,000 a year. The board voted 6-3 Thursday in favor of negotiating Smith's buyout. In the meantime, Smith will continue to work as superintendent.

Just ask yourself if any portion of the buyout might be used for something with more direct bearing on your youngster's education. Maybe something like a computer or an electronic tablet that the school officials said just last year there aren't enough of? Maybe something like a half dozen art or music teachers - subjects that the system largely eliminated some years ago in yet another wholesale education funding cut?

But when one door closes, another opens.

It also is certainly true that students can be directly affected by better leadership if that leadership results in better school culture and improved school safety.

For now, in Ooltewah's case, the principal is still in place. The athletic director and two coaches are on leave pending the outcome of criminal charges. (Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston last week charged the three with failing to report child abuse or suspected child sexual abuse, which is required by state law. Three older basketball players are charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault. The Dec. 22 incident might never have come to light at all had the 15-year-old freshman not required hospitalization for a ruptured colon and bladder.)

On Jan. 1, this page called for the resignations of the coaches in charge of the team on that Dec. 22 night during a stay-over tournament in Gatlinburg. And we called for Superintendent Smith to fire them if they did not resign.

Last week, we also pleaded with community leaders to seize this terrible moment of public focus and turn this tragedy into a time of local educational renewal - a renewal sorely needed.

Data shows 60 percent of all Hamilton County third-graders do not read on grade level.

News that Hamilton County businesses have 15,000 unfilled jobs because these employers can't find educationally qualified applicants raised little more than a cynical online comment or two.

State test scores show students here tested below the state average in nine of the 10 tested TCAP categories by as many as 16.7 percentage points.

But the hazing and rape of students at Ooltewah (now four students are reporting assaults) has galvanized the public like nothing else.

On Friday, Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Kilbride announced the Chamber is redoubling its support for the Chattanooga 2.0 education initiative - a goal aiming to use best practices and best approaches to ensure that 75 percent of our graduating high school seniors will earn a postsecondary credential because more than 80 percent of our jobs that pay a living annual wage will require it. To get students to those postsecondary certifications, of course, schools have to be improved.

"As our community's search begins for new leadership for our school system, we must find a leader with proven success in improving achievement, improving graduation rates - the type of leader who possesses the energy, vigor and confidence that matches that of our community," Kilbride said.

Every cloud has a silver lining - that's an age-old, free lesson.

Now the hardest work begins: Healing our students and stitching that silver thread into a first-rate school system.

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