The chair normally filled by former Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith was removed from the dais Thursday night, as the school board met for the first time after Smith decided to step down Monday.
Board members voted Thursday night to name Assistant Superintendents Dr. Kirk Kelly and Lee McDade jointly to the post of acting superintendent, giving the board time to choose an interim superintendent while a long-term candidate is sought.
The board voted 6-3 to make the only qualification for the interim superintendent position a bachelor's degree — the state's minimum requirement.
School board members Donna Horn, Steve Highlander and Joe Galloway voted against that decision amid debate whether the leader of a school system needs to hold an education license.
"An educator has to be a part of the solution to [the school system's] problems," said Horn, a former teacher.Board member Karitsa Mosley agreed that the long-term superintendent should have an education background.
"We are talking about a leader in education," she said. She added that whoever is named superintendent should be able to do the jobs of their employees, drawing applause from the crowd.
An interim superintendent doesn't necessarily have to be an educator, she said, "but someone who can tighten up the ship."
Member Rhonda Thurman argued the school system needs a manager, not necessarily an educator.
"What makes you think an educator can be a manager?" she asked.
Chairman Jonathan Welch said the board will meet April 14 to discuss interim superintendent candidates and the process moving forward. Interested candidates can contact him or the Hamilton County Department of Education's Human Resources Department, he said.
Just two weeks ago, when a buyout of Smith's contract was expected, four people had applied to become interim superintendent. If interested, these candidates must reapply.
The board also voted Thursday night to hire Courtney Bullard to conduct an investigation at Ooltewah High School into the alleged rape of a student by three basketball teammates on Dec. 22.
Bullard was formerly associate general counsel for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga overseeing Title IX compliance, among other responsibilities. She is now a partner and mediator at Spears, Moore, Rebman and Williams PC, a local law firm.
The Office of Civil Rights requires school systems to conduct investigations after incidents like what happened at Ooltewah High School and develop plans to prevent similar problems.
Board members also talked about the budget. Assistant Superintendent of Finance Christie Jordan said the proposed 2016-17 budget shortfall is about $35 million.
Jordan said state funding is expected to grow about $7 million, while local sales tax revenue is projected to rise by 1.5 to 2 percent over last year and property tax revenue by 1.5 percent.
But more money is needed for things like technology, graduation assistance, literacy and the district's iZone, Jordan said.
The proposed budget also includes a 5 percent employee raise, Jordan said, adding the school system has fallen behind districts in Georgia and neighboring counties by not giving competitive raises.
Jordan said this will "help to recruit and retain high-performing teachers and leaders."
Thurman said she doesn't expect the school system to get the additional $35 million from Hamilton County.
School board member David Testerman agreed, and asked to see a budget with no spending increase. He said the new spending items Jordan proposed are important, and maybe the system can cut costs in other places.
School board member George Ricks chose to remain optimistic.
"If we don't ask for a [budget increase] we'll never get it," he said.
Members also spoke favorably of developing multiple paths to graduation. A previous superintendent, Jesse Register, focused the system on college readiness.
Mosley said several high schools have great vocational programs that she wants to see expanded and strengthened. Highlander, Thurman and Ricks all said giving students opportunities to graduate high school prepared to enter a career is beneficial.
Assistant Superintendent Robert Sharpe said some vocational expansions are in the work, mentioning a partnership between the school system and Volkswagen.
He said the plan is still being finalized, but there could be an opportunity for students to attend the Volkswagen Academy while earning their high school diplomas.
Several community members spoke to the board about the iZone schools — five local schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools across the state — highlighting successes taking place within them.
A report was released in January to Hamilton County school leaders said the five schools are failing to make expected progress despite receiving about $10.6 million of federal money over the past three years. Smith got the report but did not share it with the school board.
Welch said he was "extremely concerned about the iZone report," which was published Sunday in the Times Free Press.
He said the board will host a work session in the future to talk about the report and the iZone schools.
"At this time I have more questions than answers regarding the report," Welch said.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.