Hamilton County school board split on hiring Kirk Kelly as permanent leader

School board members study information packets during their meeting Thursday, September 15, 2016 at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

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School board Chairman Steve Highlander is holding a community meeting for District 9 Monday as a way to hear from residents what they want to see in the district’s next leader. The meeting will be held at Wallace A. Smith Elementary at 6:30 p.m.

photo New school board member Kathy Lennon, elected in August, attends a school board meeting in September.

Kirk Kelly might keep his job at the helm of the Hamilton County Department of Education when the school board votes on Nov. 17.

Three members of the school board voiced support for hiring Kelly during last week's meeting, but the board was unable to take a vote because it had not been properly notified for 15 days, as board policy requires.

Though some school board members support Kelly's current leadership as interim superintendent, others are adamant a search is needed to find the district's next leader.

School board members Rhonda Thurman, Greg Martin, Joe Wingate and Tiffanie Robinson told the Times Free Press Thursday that they want a search process to continue.

"I just think everything other than [conducting a search] is hijacking the process," Wingate said.

Robinson said if the board votes to hire Kelly without conducting a search, it will make all the board's recent discussions on the search firms and the qualities they want in the next leader pointless. She added that taking a vote without a search or formal process is excluding the community from the decision.

"The way this has panned out has not been transparent," Robinson said.

Thurman is worried even if Kelly is not selected during this vote, potential candidates will be hesitant to apply for the job because of the clear support Kelly has from members of the board.

Thurman, who has served on the board for 12 years, said this board, with three new members, already is dysfunctional.

"This board is a ship without a rudder," Thurman said. "A boat in distress."

But Kathy Lennon disagreed, saying she's optimistic about the board's ability to work together.

"As a board we can really make some positive changes," she said.

Lennon made the motion last week to hire Kelly as superintendent, but said Thursday she wants the board to examine all options for what leader is best moving forward.

She continued to praise Kelly and his team's leadership, saying they are making needed changes in the county's schools.

"I do not want that momentum to stop," she said. "I want the community to get behind it."

UnifiEd, a public education advocacy group, has been advocating for community involvement in the superintendent search, and will be holding a public forum Nov. 15 with Kelly, hoping to give the community a chance to provide input two days before the board's vote.

"This will give residents a chance to hear firsthand from Dr. Kelly to explore and understand how his experience and expertise will be able to meet the growing needs of our school system," UnifiEd leaders said in a news release.

School board member David Testerman requested that the vote on Kelly be added to the Nov. 17 agenda and board member Joe Galloway agreed to it Wednesday night, which automatically adds it to the agenda, according to board policy.

Testerman said he requested that be added to the agenda to meet the 15-day notice requirement, providing the board the opportunity to discuss hiring Kelly and vote if desired.

He said more people are calling him to express concern about spending $60,000 on a search firm to help find the next leader than asking him not to vote Kelly into the permanent position.

Testerman said Kelly is qualified for the job, and said he is open to voting for him in two weeks.

Galloway said he agrees, and the board should have the chance to talk about hiring Kelly before launching a search. He is open to voting for Kelly, he said.

School board Chairman Steve Highlander and Vice Chairman Karitsa Mosley Jones said they plan to consult with people in their districts before making a decision on Kelly. Highlander, Mosley Jones, Testerman, Galloway and former school board member George Ricks cast votes to name Kelly interim superintendent.

Kelly has served in the district for more than three decades, and before being appointed interim superintendent was responsible for the district's testing, data and accountability.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.