Chattooga County Schools superintendent says he may leave over school board vote

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Chattooga County expensesFiscal Year 2007: $28 millionFiscal Year 2008: $29.5 millionSource: AuditsFiscal Year 2009: $29.7 millionFiscal Year 2010: $27.5 millionFiscal Year 2011: $25.6 millionFiscal Year 2012: $24.3 millionFiscal Year 2013: $23.2 millionFiscal Year 2014: $24.6 millionFiscal Year 2015: $26.6 millionFiscal Year 2016: $29.1 millionFiscal Year 2017: $29.6 million

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Chattooga County Graduation Rates2012: 72.6 percent2013: 61.7 percent2014: 62.7 percent2015: 79.9 percent2016: 80.1 percent2017: 83.8 percent2018: 82.2 percentSource: Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement

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Percent reading at or above grade level, third grade (2018)Chickamauga City Schools: 81.3 percentTrion City Schools: 77.5 percentDade County Schools: 74.7 percentCatoosa County Schools: 74 percentCalhoun City Schools: 73.6 percentWalker County Schools: 70.7 percentWhitfield County Schools: 66.1 percentMurray County Schools: 66 percentChattooga County Schools: 65.4 percentDalton Public Schools: 63.7 percentGordon County Schools: 62.7 percentSource: Georgia Department of Education

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. - During an interview in his office Friday morning, Chattooga County Schools Superintendent Jimmy Lenderman turned to his computer and punched in a website. He clicked "print," grabbed the warm paper and handed it across his messy desk.

"I want you to have this before you go," he told a reporter.

The paper contained what Lenderman pulled up on his monitor: The Google search results for the phrase "hostile work environment." There were links to Seattle Business Magazine, Wikipedia and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"I want to be very clear," Lenderman said. "It's not me saying this. But some in the community have said to me it appears I'm working in a hostile work environment."

For the past week, after the Chattooga County Board of Education voted to return to a five-day-a-week schedule this fall, Lenderman described himself as "docile." He said that's not his style. He's loud and folksy and unabashed about his opinions, which he argues are well-earned and well-researched. He believes it's helped earn him popularity among teachers and parents and students. (There's not really a scientific, public opinion poll to back this up, but Lenderman feels confident.)

But the board's vote - as easy as it was to see coming - left Lenderman flat-footed. He feels almost a spiritual fervor toward the district's current schedule, in which schools have been closed on Mondays since 2010. It saves the district money, but he believes it also has a psychological effect on teachers and students. They're fresh, he argues, and they're more excited to work. During a board meeting last year, as candidates campaigned to end the four-day-a-week schedule, Lenderman spoke uninterrupted for 19 minutes about the virtue of the schedule.

Now, he wonders if his days are numbered.

"I don't want to go over there and tell those kids we're going back to five days," he said. "They'll throw rocks at me on the stage."

"I'm a good Marine," he said. "Loyal to the system. I will carry out the orders I'm given. I'm responsible for the day-to-day operations. But I will never say things just to support the people in authority. I will continue to work for them, or they can fire me, or I can quit. But I do have freedom of speech."

"I'm about done with this," he added. "I'm not going to work in a hostile work environment, and that's about what they've done."

What's been hostile for him so far? He said a board member cut him off while he spoke at a meeting two weeks ago. On Friday, he paused for a beat, stared down, lifted his eyes and smiled impishly. He wondered out loud whether he should be saying these things. He has 2 1/2 years left on his contract.

"You know," he told a reporter, "you're just expediting my retirement."

Asked about these comments later, board member Julia Houston said, "He's not spoken with us about concerns about a hostile work environment. We've had one board meeting and no other contact other than a couple of emails."

It's not yet clear whether Lenderman will follow through on leaving, or whether he just wants to put pressure on board members John Agnew, Sam Ballard, Brad Hayes and Houston, who voted to return to the five-day-a-week schedule at a meeting Jan. 17. Lenderman has said multiple times that the added expense of the extra days could cause cuts in other areas of the budget.

He told the Times Free Press he's not a "Facebook person," but he knows parents have roasted the elected officials online. Some board members deleted their pages. He also knows about a petition urging the board members to reverse course. In a county with a population of about 24,000, the petition had 2,100 signatures as of Friday night. (The board's next meeting is Feb. 21 at 6 p.m.)

Houston, one of three new board members elected in November, said the district will not cut programs such as art or duel enrollment classes, as some parents have fretted. She pointed out that the district reverted to a four-day-a-week schedule in 2010 amid a revenue shortage. In the heart of a recession, the state's funding to Chattooga County dropped from $19 million in fiscal year 2008 to $13.6 million in fiscal 2011.

An early childhood education professor, Houston said the decision to return to class is a matter of student achievement. She pointed to reading statistics. According to the Georgia Department of Education, about one-third of third graders in the district read below grade level last year. Among 11 Northwest Georgia school districts, that ranked third to last, in front of only Dalton Public Schools (36.3 percent below grade level) and Gordon County Schools (37.3 percent).

"You don't make things up," she said. "You miss it in kindergarten, you don't make it up in first grade. And second grade. Now, there are gaps and holes in a child's education."

Houston also pointed to high school graduation outcomes, which measure what students are doing five years later. In the Chattooga High School class of 2007, 42 percent earned an associate's degree, bachelor's degree or certificate within five years - or they were enrolled in post-secondary classes. But in the class of 2012, that figure had been cut in half.

While Lenderman said students are actually in class more in a four-day week, Agnew believes the value of that time is diluted. Students can't pay attention for so many hours in a row.

"I don't see how young children have the ability to concentrate" for that long, he said. "When you have a child in the classroom all day long. I don't see how they can retain that much information, when you get down to three, four o'clock in the afternoon."

It's difficult to empirically measure whether student performance has gotten worse since the schools dropped Mondays from the schedule in 2010. State and federal student evaluations change every couple of years, blocking a solid, apples-to-apples comparison over time.

But Lenderman said the district was performing worse before the switch. Leroy Massey Elementary Schools, Summerville Middle School and Chattooga County High School were among the worst in the state when he became an assistant principal at the high school in 2008, he said.

The graduation rate has improved, from 66 percent in 2011 to 82 percent last year. While not among the best in the region, some schools saw improvement in their College and Career Ready Performance indexes from 2016-17. In those years, Lyerly Elementary School improved from an F rating to a D, Chattooga High School improved from a D rating to a C, and Menlo Elementary School improved from a D rating to a B. (The 2018 scores cannot be compared because the evaluation methods changed.)

Chattooga County is also a notoriously poor area, with a median family income of $35,700, about $17,000 below the state average. About four out of five students are on free or reduced-price lunches. Lenderman believes having fewer school days has improved morale among teachers and students. With constant three-day weekends, they are less stressed out. With the longer days, students are actually in class more over the course of a week than they were before the switch.

"If you look at how poor we are, we should always be at about the bottom," Lenderman said. "But what we're doing, we're convincing them we can be better. We're trying to change the thinking in the county: education is important."

Lenderman estimates that the fifth school day will, over the course of the year, cost the district $750,000, about a 2.5 percent bump in expenses. He said they will have to pay paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other non-certified employees more. The district will also pay more for power and bus fuel.

He predicts the board will replace buses less often. The district now buys three new ones a year, at a total cost of about $240,000. He also thinks the district will replace Chromebooks for students less often and spend less on teacher training. But Houston argued that the district will not have to cut any important programs, pointing to the $6.8 million reserve fund at the end of fiscal 2017.

"Why do we have this money in reserve, and we're not using it for the education of our children?" she said. "That's the bigger issue."

She and some other board members who voted to return schools to Mondays pointed out that state funding has returned beyond the levels before the district went to the four-day-a-week schedule. While the district received $13.6 million from the state in fiscal 2011, state funding was up to $17.7 million by fiscal 2017.

"There is a lot of misinformation," Houston said. " A lot of people think we didn't look at the budget and didn't do it under consideration. There has been a lot of consideration."

John Turner, the lone board member to vote against the change on Jan. 17, said returning to school on Mondays will hurt morale. A former English, art and drama teacher, he believes students are learning better because of their frequent three-day weekends.

His proof? His gut.

"During graduation, we would shake hands with all the graduates," he said. "And I would see just light in their eyes. I could see that there was hope and light in their eyes. I never had seen it before."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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