Cooper: School board, public must work together

The Hamilton County Board of Education must work hand in transparent hand with the public in the selection of a new superintendent.

If ever there was a time for nine members of the Hamilton County Board of Education to confer with the public and to seek outside help in a search for a new superintendent, it is now.

Perhaps never before - and certainly not since the Chattanooga city and Hamilton County Schools systems merged in 1997 - have the schools been in such a crisis.

Smarting from continuing low standardized test scores, the pool cue rape and assault of high school basketball players, the handling of former Superintendent Rick Smith's contract and the hiring as interim superintendent of a member of Smith's top staff, the board desperately needs a win.

So as it begins discussion on the steps it will take in the process toward hiring a new superintendent, it should seek all the help it can get.

To wit:

- The Chattanooga 2.0 movement will complete work next month on recommendations from a series of community education panels.

- UnifiEd already has supplied the board with a document offering the feedback it received in a series of public meetings in all nine districts.

- An additional Chattanooga 2.0-hosted community education forum is Monday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

- Other Tennessee and regional school districts have made or are making superintendent searches. What might be gleaned from checking on the practices of other boards?

- An outside search firm should be able to employ measures not readily available to Hamilton County's board to find the best candidates.

The board at Thursday's work session began discussions into the search process and immediately differed on qualifications and the importance of public input.

Member Donna Horn said an educational background for a superintendent was a must for her, but members Rhonda Thurman and Greg Martin said such a qualification was not a priority for them. A retired military officer, Shaun Sadler, after all, had recently been one of three candidates interviewed for the interim superintendent post.

Thurman said she wasn't interested in a series of public meetings, but members Steve Highlander and George Ricks felt it would be critical to hear from the community.

The board appeared to be in agreement, though, that it was important to take its time on the search.

However, that process is complicated for at least two reasons, one which favors an early hire and one which doesn't.

The first is that a drawn-out process means 42,000-plus students will have all or the better part of one more school year before a new superintendent can begin to make the meaningful system-wide changes we trust will result in better education for all.

The second is the August election, where four board members face re-election. At least two and maybe three seats may be overturned, so what one group of nine members may believe is important in June may not be what a different group of nine believe is vital in September. And since board policy prevents a superintendent from being hired 45 days before an election, the board has little time in which to make an effective choice.

However the board proceeds, it should move forward in a way in which its actions are transparent and its motives clear. With such a critical hire in the offing, with the fate of "a company" the size of Cleveland, Tenn., in its hands, it should want to inform the public of its moves every step of the way.

It may even want to consider public forums in locations other than the Board of Education offices when it narrows its search to several candidates. Indeed, to increase public involvement, the board could solicit questions by email from parents, students, teachers and potential audience members that individual candidates could answer.

If it appears the Hamilton County school board has a lot of pressure on it from the superintendent search, it in fact does. Members are paid less than $11,000 annually to assume the grief of more than 350,000 county residents who want our schools to be better. Hiring the next superintendent is the most critical thing this group will do. So it's important that while the school board members carry out their official duties, the public also does its part and gives these nine people feedback so they don't feel they're out there all alone.

More Ooltewah rape case stories