Justin Robertson interviews for Hamilton County Schools superintendent position

Staff file photo / Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts junior MaCia Rudolph, left, and her mom Gloria speak with Hamilton County Schools Chief Operations Officer Justin Robertson, right, during a community forum at Tyner Academy in 2020. On Tuesday, Robertson was the third finalist to interview for the district's superintendent opening.

Justin Robertson, interim deputy superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, on Tuesday was the last of three superintendent finalists to interview for the position, and the school board plans to vote on the district's next leader at its regularly scheduled meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

Robertson, a 13-year veteran of the district, is the only internal candidate for the position.

(READ MORE: One candidate withdraws, three move on to school board interviews in Hamilton County Schools superintendent search)

When asked how his history in the district made him the best candidate for the job, Robertson said the advantages he has include his familiarity with people in the district and its strategic plan. One drawback is that while people may think he has been successful in his behind-the-scenes role as chief operations officer, they may question his ability to take the helm and move the district forward, he said.

"My approach is putting a team together," Robertson said. "Superintendent obviously is the face of the work and is going to lead it, but you can't do it without a great team.

"In my opinion, a great team is a team of diverse experiences with diverse thoughts, with people who are going to challenge the superintendent and not just say yes to bad ideas."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school board interviews first superintendent finalist)

He said he feels the district has done a good job over the past four years of hiring a mix of internal and external candidates, and he hopes to continue that practice when filling future openings in the district.

"I think we have to show our internal talent that if you're doing good work, you can move up," Robertson said. "But we also have to bring in outside talent that's going to push us to a different place."

School board member Jenny Hill of North Chattanooga said Robertson has significant support from people in the community who are openly skeptical of or opposed to portions of the district's strategic plan dealing with equity, race, diversity and social and emotional supports. She asked what kind of superintendent those supporters expect him to be, why they expect that and whether he can be a superintendent who will move forward with those aspects of the strategic plan.

"When you go and speak with the people I've worked with and you ask them about the work that I've done, they'll tell you what kind of person I am," Robertson responded. "They'll tell you what kind of vision I have for kids."

He said that "before we were talking about equity," he was working with a group of parents of exceptional education students who weren't satisfied with what Hamilton County Schools was doing in that area.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools superintendent search continues with second of three finalist interviews)

"I would beg anyone to sit down and argue that we shouldn't do everything we can for kids with disabilities," Robertson said. "It's not a hard argument."

He said kids come into schools with different needs, and he supports getting people around the table with diverse thoughts on what the district can do to fill those gaps.

Robertson said he thinks the signs of a healthy school system include children who come to school and are engaged, athletic teams that compete at a high level, performing arts shows the community shows up for and a community that believes in the system and promotes it to others.

When asked by school board member Rhonda Thurman of Hixson if he had any plans for innovative programs to engage high-achieving students, Robertson said Hamilton County Schools has made "tremendous commitments" to positive programs and the system's leaders need to consider whether those programs are included in the strategic plan. As an example, Robertson said the system is trying to base its staffing model on enrollment and the number of economically disadvantaged students, but that doesn't take into account commitments the system has made to programs such as the nationally recognized fine arts magnet school Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts.

"For it to be a true fine arts school, it needs to be staffed in a different way," he said, adding that he also feels the district can do more to make sure its magnet schools are reflective of the district's population.

The board previously interviewed Jermaine Dawson, chief academic and accountability officer of Birmingham City Schools in Birmingham, Alabama, and Christopher Bernier, chief of staff of the Clark County school district in Las Vegas. They are seeking to replace Bryan Johnson, who left Hamilton County Schools in August to take a leadership role at trucking and logistics business U.S. Xpress.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.