After 14 months without a permanent superintendent, the Hamilton County Board of Education is interviewing candidates for the post.
Stuart Greenberg and Natasha Baker were the first candidates to answer the board's questions during separate videoconference interviews Monday night. Alan Coverstone, a former administrator with Metro Nashville Public Schools, also had an interview scheduled but withdrew his name from consideration over the weekend.
The board will interview the remaining six candidates in the coming weeks and then decide which candidates to invite for in-person visits.
The board first interviewed Greenberg, who has been in education for 35 years and is now the chief academic officer for Leon County Public Schools in Florida. Greenberg boasted that the district, which includes 34,000 students, surpasses the state's average in English and math test scores and its graduation rate.
He said if selected for the job, his top three priorities would be boosting student achievement, focusing on the district's facilities needs, and working within the community to build relationships, transparency and trust.
"These are also three things that I think I do really well," Greenberg said. "I understand systems. I understand teaching and learning. I listen and honor what is in place, and I love being out in the community."
Before working at Leon County Public Schools, Greenberg was executive director for Reading and Early Learning for the Florida Department of Education.
When asked his philosophy on teaching reading, Greenberg said programs alone do not teach reading and it takes an expert.
"You need to have ongoing professional development," he said, adding that it's valuable for teachers to learn best practices from each other.
He also emphasized the importance of creating a supportive school culture for teachers and students, and developing a three- to five-year plan for facilities and instruction.
The board did not ask Greenberg about why he's been a finalist in at least six superintendent searches in the past two years, including in Knoxville and Nashville.
Baker, the second candidate to be interviewed, is working as Michigan's school reform officer, overseeing the state's lowest-performing schools in about 70 districts.
"All children deserve access to a quality education," Baker told the board in her opening statement.
Baker said the divisiveness she sees in Hamilton County is a problem, specifically noting how some municipalities are considering leaving the district and the state is considering taking control of the district's lowest-performing, predominately poor schools.
She said her experience and background prepare her to work with both of those types of communities and pull everyone together to keep the district united.
In her current role, Baker said she monitors the bottom 5 percent of schools in Michigan, overseeing the schools' improvement plans and providing an additional level of accountability.
Baker has been widely criticized in Detroit for her office's plan to close as many as 38 schools because of low academic performance.
School board member Rhonda Thurman told Baker she had read about the situation and that people use the same phrase to describe them both.
"They say I'm out of control," she said.
Thurman said she respects Baker's willingness to recognize that some schools have been failing students for more than a decade and need to close, despite pushback from their communities.
Baker said the state law mandated she go through the process of evaluating those lowest-performing schools and intervene.
As a leader, Baker said she isn't always about harmony and that giving and receiving feedback is important.
"It's important to have a culture of candor across the district," she added.
At the end of the interview, Baker asked the board what hurdles the new superintendent may face.
School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones said navigating the political climate isn't easy.
Steve Highlander, chairman of the school board, said each year the budget process is a challenge for the board and district.
Thurman said she wants to see more accountability.
And school board member Kathy Lennon noted that she has a passion for the arts and hopes to have more of it in schools.
Between interviews, Highlander said he hopes to have a permanent candidate in place by June 1, but school board members Tiffanie Robinson and Joe Smith questioned if that's realistic.
Highlander answered, "Maybe not. But you set goals."
Robinson applauded Highlander for wanting to move quickly, but pointed out that the last batch of interviews is scheduled for May 22. After those interviews, the board will narrow the list of candidates and schedule in-person visits for the finalists before making a final decision on who to hire.
Two weeks ago, search firm Coleman Lew and Associates gave the school board 14 candidates to consider for the permanent position, including Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly.
Highlander told each board member to email him a list of the 10 candidates they wanted to interview, and asked for two lists, each in alphabetical order, with the first list representing their top five choices. And then last week, Highlander, the board secretary and a representative from the search firm tabulated the results in private.
Forty-eight hours later, Highlander notified the board about which nine candidates it would interview. Highlander has not said what method was used to tabulate the results, or whether candidates on the members' top five lists were weighted differently from those on their second lists.
State law says the board must deliberate in public and members may not cast secret votes or use emails as a way to avoid open meetings laws.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.
Fast facts on the candidates:
Name: Natasha Baker
Job: State School Reform Officer for the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget
Highest level of education: Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership from the University of Michigan, 2017
Name: Stuart Greenberg
Job: Chief academic officer for Leon County Public Schools
Highest level of education: Masters of Science in Educational Leadership from Nova University, 1988
5 p.m.: Wayne Johnson
6 p.m.: Clifford Davis
7 p.m.: Bryan Johnson
5 p.m.: Jack Elsey Jr.
6 p.m.: Kirk Kelly
7 p.m.: Timothy Gadson III
All meetings are held in the superintendent’s conference room at the Hamilton County Department of Education.