Wanted: Interim superintendent to bring stability, leadership to Hamilton County schools

Superintendent Rick Smith listens to audience questions after a presentation in which he laid out his plans for what additional funding could bring at Brainerd High School on April 28, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Smith gave the same presentation at other public high schools across Hamilton County.
Superintendent Rick Smith listens to audience questions after a presentation in which he laid out his plans for what additional funding could bring at Brainerd High School on April 28, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Smith gave the same presentation at other public high schools across Hamilton County.

We cant afford to be status quo here.

The Hamilton County school district's next leader needs to bring stability and provide the foundation for a permanent leader capable of transforming the school system into one of the best in the South.

That's the view of some education advocates and school board members, who are considering what comes next after Superintendent Rick Smith requested the school board buy out his contract in the wake of the alleged rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman.

Smith's court testimony in the alleged rape and assault of the 15-year-old student is set for Feb. 15. Afterward, the school board is expected to vote to buy out his contract and name an interim superintendent, though some elected officials have questioned privately whether Smith should be fired for cause for failing to report the attack to authorities.

Three former Ooltewah team members are charged with aggravated assault and aggravated rape. Records from Sevier County Juvenile Court state two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old raped their teammate with a pool cue, causing extensive internal injuries that required surgery to repair.

Because of criticism of how school officials handled the assault - with a prolonged public silence - many people agree the interim leader needs to come from outside the school system.

"I'm all for thinking outside the box," said school board member Greg Martin. "I want to find someone who can be effective, maybe even a businessman who can surround himself with educators."

Bill Kilbride, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees that someone with business and leadership experience could help guide the district through the transition. The school board is about to begin the budget process and make decisions about teacher hires and central office staff.

"It could be good to have someone with operating skills who has done this before and can guide the rest of the school administration through their work," Kilbride said. "We have to remember that the school system here represents around $400 million a year, and that takes management."

Kilbride falls into the "hire-an-outsider" camp for an interim superintendent, saying the next leader must be seen as distant from the current administration and the assault scandal.

School board member Rhonda Thurman agreed.

"I don't see a way we can have anybody from inside the school system," she said. "Everybody knows somebody and has worked for somebody."

Thurman said the school system must regain trust, and an outside leader with experience in fiscal management could be an asset during the transition.

School board member David Testerman said whoever is chosen interim superintendent should not be considered for superintendent, even though he or she could be in the interim position for a while. He wants someone who knows the district.

"We need someone that will help us through these rough times," Testerman said. "I want someone within radius of Hamilton County that knows what we've gone through."

Board member Donna Horn wants someone from inside the state who is familiar with the educational reforms of the past couple years. The board could probably find a retired superintendent to help, but has not ruled out an interim leader from inside the district.

A review of school leadership research and reports conducted by the Nashville-based State Collaborative on Reforming Education shows school boards benefit from hiring interim superintendents with transitional leadership experience.

According to SCORE's review, school boards must be clear with interim superintendents about the type of leader they want, especially if the board wants someone to be more than a caretaker for the system.

For example, after the cheating scandal in Atlanta in 2011, the school board hired Erroll Davis, a former executive of an energy company and the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, as interim leader. Davis was given the freedom to make difficult decisions and manage backlash from the scandal, according to SCORE's review. He is now seen as someone who restored order during a controversial time.

Elizabeth Crews, executive director of UnifiEd, a community-led group of Chattanoogans who want to improve the schools, said restoring trust is important. It's crucial to ensure the selection process for the next superintendent be transparent, she said.

"If [the board] does this process in secret or hires someone who doesn't have transparency as a key policy position, it will be problematic," Crews said.

She hopes the school board involves the community in the selection process. UnifiEd plans to hold several community conversations where people can brainstorm about what they want in the permanent schools chief.

Sarah Morgan, president of the Benwood Foundation, said she hopes the interim superintendent can harness the community's commitment to help the schools through the Chattanooga 2.0 improvement effort, and prepare a strong foundation for the district's next long-term leader.

"We need someone in the interim who can stabilize the district and make sure the house is in order," Morgan said. "And can also help prepare the way, allowing us to land the best superintendent that this community deserves."

Morgan also hopes the eventual permanent superintendent will be open to innovation and best practices to help all children succeed - regardless of ZIP code.

"We can't afford to be status quo here," Morgan said. "We need to look for a leader who will push and aspire for change."

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

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