Cooper: Smith's exit leaves clean slate

Superintendent Rick Smith signs some paperwork before a Hamilton County school board meeting in February.
Superintendent Rick Smith signs some paperwork before a Hamilton County school board meeting in February.

With Superintendent Rick Smith's announced retirement Monday, the Hamilton County Schools system now has a clean white board on which to work.

The superintendent, days after saying he was ready to fulfill his contract that runs through 2019, stepped down the morning after the Times Free Press published results of a bruising Tennessee Department of Education response to the district's plans to remedy its priority schools.

The state's response noted the district's plans for the current school year "lacked a comprehensive approach" and said its restructuring proposals for the 2016-17 year left "the review team with great pause."

Smith alone, as noted in this space before, is not responsible for the poor achievement test scores and progress for the priority schools. He can't be in each home to make sure education is a top priority or insist parents or guardians help their children focus on learning.

However, when the low-scoring schools fail to improve when many of their counterparts across the state are making significant progress, some of the blame must fall on his shoulders.

The lack of improvement, combined with his recent handling of the pre-Christmas Ooltewah High School basketball team pool cue rape incident, left Smith a proverbial lame duck for the remaining three-plus years of his tenure.

His resignation, which came a week after his requested buyout by the Hamilton County Board of Education failed, offers an opportunity for new leadership - backed by a business community that wants to see better training and better jobs for all - to take steps Smith might not have been able to take.

A new superintendent will not be able to turn around all low-performing schools quickly but should receive wider latitude to pilot programs, expand charter schools or look into allowing the state's Achievement School District to run the local priority schools.

After all, compared to the state schools in several areas, Hamilton County has nowhere to go but up.

' In 2015, county students showed lower proficiency than the state in all TVASS-tested subjects except grades 3-8 math.

' In general, county students showed less growth in the percentage of proficient or advanced students from 2014 to 2015 than the state in all subjects except English II. The same was true for county black, Hispanic and American Indian students as a whole.

' In considering the same population over the span of 2013 to 2015, the percentage of Hamilton County students either proficient or advanced in reading/language arts and algebra I declined, and the percentage increased only minimally in English III. The results were exactly the same in considering all economically disadvantaged students over the same period.

' In comparison with other school systems around the state with similar poverty levels, Hamilton County was the lowest performing district in algebra I, algebra II and English III and worse than all but one system in reading/language arts and English II.

Although Smith is leaving immediately, he will be on leave of absence until his retirement takes effect on July 1.

Before the school board voted not to buy out the superintendent's contract, the board solicited candidates to become interim superintendent. Five people submitted resumes, and one withdrew.

The sooner the school board is able to settle on an interim superintendent, the smoother the transition will be to a future district leader. The year as it is, with Smith dealing with the fallout over the alleged rape, with the collapse of the online TNReady state achievement tests, with the devastating priority schools report and with the superintendent's exit, will not likely go into the county annals as one of educational progress.

But educational progress is exactly what the county needs and why the selection of the next superintendent is so crucial. It will be interesting to see how the process plays out - if a superintendent is chosen before this year's school board races heat up and if one is not chosen before August whether the selection becomes an issue in this summer's school board races.

It should!

Hamilton County residents of all stripes - those with students in the schools, those with students who have graduated from the schools, those with students in private schools and those without children - should want their voices heard on the identity and qualifications of the new superintendent.

Schools and education, here and elsewhere, do not exist in a vacuum. The better educated the residents, the better jobs they earn. The better jobs they earn, the better their standard of living. The better their standard of living, the less crime is committed, the more taxes are paid, the less the need for government dependency.

We hope that is the type of success that is written on the schools' now clean white board.

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