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Kirk Kelly said he's spent the last 15 months working to stabilize Hamilton County Schools and implement a strategic plan, and he hopes the school board will allow him to stay at the helm and continue this work.
"The biggest way we can make changes is from within," said Kelly, interim superintendent for the school system. " Right now we have massive buy-in for what we're doing."
Kelly was the last of five superintendent finalists to interview for the superintendent position Friday, and the board plans to vote on the district's next leader June 15. Five of the board's nine members need to agree on a finalist for the decision to be made.
Kelly did not go through the same daylong interview schedule as the other four finalists, but he did have the same time scheduled in the afternoon to meet with elected officials, education stakeholders and the community. He then faced the board he's been working with for more than a year, answering questions about decisions he's made as interim superintendent and plans for the future during the hour-and-a-half interview.
Name: Kirk Kelly
Job: Interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools
Highest level of education: Doctorate in educational administration from Tennessee State University, 1990
The board named Kelly — a 35-year veteran of the district — interim superintendent in April 2016, after former Superintendent Rick Smith resigned. The months prior to Smith's resignation were tumultuous for the district after the rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman by his basketball teammates and the surfacing of a state report detailing the lack of progress being made in the district's lowest-performing schools.
Kelly told the board Friday that when named interim superintendent, his goal was "trying to move [the district] forward and not create a shipwreck."
He told the board that he saw the most pressing issue at the time to be curriculum and instruction, and that is why he named Jill Levine to the role of chief academic officer and hired both Justin Robertson and Zac Brown as assistant superintendents. In the future, Kelly said he's open to adding to and making changes to the district's leadership, but did not provide specifics.
If named the permanent superintendent, Kelly told the board he won't have to take time visiting schools, building relationships or creating a strategic plan like the other candidates, because he's already done that.
School board member Joe Smith asked Kelly how he would regain public trust in the school system and help the district secure more funding from the county if named superintendent, because the district isn't likely to see more revenue this year.
Kelly said he plans to start talking with the county earlier about the district's budget.
"That gives a better picture of what we're trying to fund, and will have some community opportunities for people to say this is what we want to see, and this is what we want coming from the school system," Kelly said.
Later in the interview, school board member Joe Wingate asked Kelly if he would start forecasting budgets several years out and a long-term plan that would hold the district publicly accountable.
Kelly said it's harder to predict budgets in government than the private sector because funding can change. But he'd look at budgeting for two to three years in advance and tying it to a plan, he added.
School board member Rhonda Thurman noted that more than $11 million in grant funding was spent in the district's five lowest-performing schools, known as iZone or priority schools, but it resulted in little academic progress. Now that the money has been spent, she asked Kelly if the district is going to take money away from other schools to continue funding interventions in the struggling schools.
Kelly said it's the district's responsibility to support all schools and work with principals to support them in what they need to be successful, but he admitted the district has a problem when it comes to equity.
"We want to support all of our schools, and we're not going to look to pull from others. We've got to make a way," Kelly said. " We have to assess what we have to provide [all schools.]"
School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones said people have been saying the district needs change.
"For whatever strange reason in Hamilton County, people think that needs to come from the outside," she said, adding that she's seen change since Kelly was named interim superintendent. " [What] have you done to take us on this upward slope?" she asked.
Kelly said district leaders have been working to support the leaders at each school and listen to what educators need. He added that he thinks morale within the district is higher than it's been in years and an emphasis has been placed on professional development.
In October, school board members Kathy Lennon, Joe Galloway and David Testerman advocated for hiring Kelly to the permanent position. The board ultimately voted to conduct a search.
And school board members Rhonda Thurman, Joe Wingate, Tiffanie Robinson and Joe Smith have voiced support for finding a leader from outside of the district.
Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck was the only elected official to meet with Kelly during the designated slot Friday.
Testerman was not able to attend any of the five interviews this week because of a death in his family.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.