Rick Smith is the Hamilton County schools superintendent who won't go away — the one who is a likable-enough guy and no doubt a good man, but not a leader. He's not even a capable administrator, as school events of the past four years have shown.
The Board of Education voted 5-4 Monday against a proposed buyout agreement that would have paid Smith, at his suggestion, $269,000 to go away. Then a motion to fire Smith failed for lack of a second, despite clear sentiment on the part of several board members who want Smith gone. Now Smith, who has been with the school system for 34 years, says he does not plan to renegotiate.
The result is that the four-year superintendent will continue as the head of our limping school system for another three and a half years, despite widespread criticism of him from the public and school board members after the Dec. 22 rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman, allegedly by three of his basketball teammates during an unauthorized tournament trip to Gatlinburg while the coaches and chaperones were upstairs in a rented cabin.
But the rape — which Smith did not at first detail to school board members and then made no public comment about for 20 days — was just the most recent in a series of dismal school administration failures.
About 60 percent of all Hamilton County third-graders do not read on grade level.
Systemwide, students here tested below the state average in nine of the 10 tested TCAP categories by as many as 16.7 percentage points. The scores were significantly below what Smith had led board members to expect.
Then, rather than have a discussion about the horrifying scores, Smith slickly turned the board's attention away from the TCAP results by claiming the new TNReady tests would take much more educational time out of students' classroom days — six or seven weeks out of the school year. The tests overall actually add only two hours of testing time to the old TCAP testing schedule — still less than 40 hours.
The collective price of these failures far surpasses a $269,000 buyout, or even the school system's nearly $400 million yearly budget.
Think of the lost wages for these failed students. Think of the lost productivity (and, yes, tax revenue) in Hamilton County. Think of the local employers who say we have some 15,000 jobs unfilled by local residents because they can't find educationally qualified applicants.
In principle, school board members Steve Highlander, Donna Horn, Karitsa Mosley, Rhonda Thurman and Greg Martin were right to vote against the buyout, saying their constituents were absolutely opposed to paying Smith to leave after he offered to step down for a price.
"If he wants to leave we shouldn't pay him to leave," said Thurman.
But right, too, are those who think that paying for the buyout is chump change compared to what the county schools might spend defending a lawsuit if they fire Smith.
Equally right are those who believe we'll be throwing away our money to keep paying Smith for the ineffective job he is likely to continue doing.
Smith — good man or not — is the elephant in the room. He's the one who is holding up fresh, new thinking to re-energize our drastically damaged school system.
Unless Smith takes the high road — unless he decides to do what's best for students and what's best for the school system he has worked in for 34 years, unless he decides to resign early and take his normal accrued vacation and end-of-service pay (more than $240,000 by itself) — we're stuck with him.
But Smith or no Smith, the school system must move forward.
Joe Galloway, a school board member and a Smith supporter, at the board meeting Monday said "If [Smith] is going to be our superintendent, we need to get behind him."
That may be nice sentiment, but it's really not what the board needs to do.
If Smith is going to be our superintendent, the board needs to get on him. Constantly. Rigorously.
Stop being his friend. Stop being his patsy.
Be his boss. And be the most demanding boss he's ever had.
Stand up for our children for a change.