Community weighs in on search for leader of Hamilton County Schools

photo Joe Wingate works in his office at Chattanooga State Community College, where he impacts students' lives as a coach and professor. Starting September, Wingate will impact students' lives on a larger scale as a newly elected member of the Hamilton County Board of Education.Joe Wingate
photo Sabrena Smedley
photo Hamilton County Department of Education Interim Superintendent, Kirk Kelly, speaks to reporters. Members of the Hamilton County Department of Education visited the Chattanooga Times Free Press to discuss goals for the 2016 school year.

Several people at East Hamilton School Monday night said they're glad the Hamilton County Department of Education decided to conduct a superintendent search, urging the board to consider hiring a non-educator for the post.

The meeting was hosted by newly elected school board member Joe Wingate and Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, who said they wanted to include the community in the process of selecting a superintendent.

"As a school board member, I know folks want to have a voice, and want to be heard," Wingate said. "That is what tonight is all about."

Before opening up a conversation with the couple dozen people in attendance, Wingate explained why he thinks the board selected the right search firm to help find the next superintendent.

Coleman Lew and Associates Inc. is the most expensive of the three firms interviewed, Wingate said, but has the most experience finding a diverse pool of candidates - both educators and non-educators.

Once the conversation was opened up to the audience, Wingate answered a slew of questions regarding the superintendent search process and the desired qualifications of the district's next leader. He also listened as community members gave their thoughts.

"We need a business leader who can run a $400 million budget," said Bradley Church, a local business owner.

The school district already has great educators, Church said, and now the district needs someone with experience in business.

Wingate, who has been involved in education for 19 years, said he believes the district's next superintendent needs to be sympathetic to the work educators do in the classroom, but agreed the responsibilities of the job stretch far beyond education.

"This is a very unique job," Wingate said.

The leader of Hamilton County Schools needs to be able to manage a large budget, and most educators don't have a background in that.

Mike Hartline asked Wingate if the next superintendent's annual evaluation could be tied to student performance.

"That is going to be something for [the board] to sit and talk about," Wingate answered. He added that the state's standardized test may not be a reliable system to evaluate student performance.

A woman in the room asked what it will look like to have Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly as a candidate for the job.

Wingate said Kelly can apply like anyone else and will not get a fast-pass to the list of final candidates the board considers.

"He's not jumping line or anything like that," Wingate said.

Near the end of the meeting, Wingate told the room that a good leader makes the lives of everyone who works for him better.

"It's going to be a tough job," he said. "And [the next superintendent is] probably going to have to grind for more than a couple years."

As Wingate talked he was optimistic about the future, saying the board had a very productive conversation recently about where it wants the school district to go.

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones and chairman Steve Highlander both agreed with Wingate, saying the board is heading in a good direction and the public shouldn't expect the nine-member board to agree all the time.

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