Greeson: Smith's departure puts onus on school board to fix this

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith signs some paperwork at a school board meeting in February when board members discussed options for an interim superintendent.

Rick Smith resigned Monday.

He should have resigned last Monday. Or been fired. Or bought out.

That's water under the bridge, down there where our schools' test scores are sinking.

photo Jay Greeson

Smith's career ended Monday, and in some ways that's sad. The final chapter of his 33-year run in the education system has been tragic, but that's not the entire story.

It's somewhat fitting that his resignation came after this paper's Kendi Anderson's story about the district's mostly failed efforts to improve our most-struggling schools - as pertinent to the state of leadership in the system as the horrific details of the headline-stealing scenes from within the Ooltewah basketball program.

With that, the onus and the future of our public schools now falls on the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Last week, the board stepped into the spotlight. With Smith's resignation, the board now stands alone in it.

The importance of the board's next hire can't be overstated, and the board chairman knows it.

"Surprised?" Chairman Jonathan Welch said Monday, repeating the question. "Yes, but I've been surprised a lot the last two months."

We all have. The details are gory, and we've heard them over and over.

That's not to diminish the hurt or the pain. In fact, it serves to focus on them and the work to correct them.

That now falls on Welch and Co., a group that must solve the problem it had a part in creating.

"I don't speak for the board, but I think we can do a better job of setting expectations and goals for the district and following up on progress toward those goals," Welch said. "That's a big part of this. I think the board - talking about the process moving forward - can do better in terms of what we expect and what we're willing to do in terms of developing and driving strategic planning rather than it being brought to us."

Smith's departure after the school board making one mistake after another and still getting the right outcome is akin to planning a potential budget expansion with lottery tickets.

In fact, if anyone thinks Smith's resignation was validation for the vote not to buy him out, well, that's convenient and fortunate. It's also false, since anyone voting against the buyout with knowledge of the final-straw report should have backed board member Greg Martin's attempt to fire Smith last week.

"The only way we can move beyond wringing our hands about what's wrong is to take this as an opportunity," Welch said. "That's the only thing we can do. We can't waste a lot of time playing the blame game. We have to take this opportunity to implement significant changes that empower teachers and principals to do what's best for children, not what simply checks a box."

So what happens now? Where do Welch and his colleagues go?

That's the big question, and it seems everyone has an opinion. The Chamber, every foundation this side of the riverfront, and even a few of the street preachers who yell at Riverbend customers have names to watch.

Here's another thought: Every group with an interest in this needs to be there Thursday night.

We are here because politics pushed our students into the shadows. We are here because too many people were worried about keeping their jobs rather than doing their jobs. We are here for a number of reasons that have allowed us to hit the reset button and reshape the narrative of the Hamilton County Schools system.

That journey starts Thursday.

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

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