Hamilton County schools: Let’s start over

A friend of mine who used to teach in Hamilton County planted a seed.  Ken Belt sent a message about one of my stories, and he suggested that smaller school districts seem to function more efficiently than large ones.  He pointed out that the largest school system in the state of Indiana (Indianapolis Public Schools) is smaller than Hamilton County’s system.  As Ken wrote, “The concept of smaller school districts is more manageable and accountable.  There is a better sense of community within the schools.” In other words, rather than feeling overwhelmed in a massive bureaucracy, each parent, each employee has a stronger voice, and they answer to someone a mile away, instead of across town.

It got me to thinking. The Hamilton County school system is kind of a mess right now.  Superintendent Rick Smith, feeling the heat from low test scores, and his handling of the Ooltewah incident, has one foot out the door.  When he goes, it’s likely many of his associates will follow.  Additionally, several principals are sure to retire or jump ship. No wonder: it is generally believed that School Board members will bring in a new boss, with no ties to the status quo.


Well, guess what?  Many of these administrators are worth keeping, if we start fresh. Let’s suppose for a moment that they aren’t the biggest problem.  Maybe it’s the system.  Let’s think small.

Speaking of Hamilton County superintendents, how many happy send-offs have you seen in past 20 years?  The answer is zero.  This never seems to end well.  In some school districts, they name buildings after superintendents. We furnish U-Hauls for ours.

The final Chattanooga City schools leader, Harry Reynolds, was pretty much chased out of town in 1996.  His legendary mismanagement resulted in city voters deciding to close their school system.  Keep in mind, Hamilton County was required by state law to absorb the city schools, creating this huge school district.  At the time, some county leaders said it was not a good idea. Twenty years later, is it possible they were right?

The first superintendent of this combined system, Jesse Register, was sent packing in 2006, armed with $150,000 in “see you later” money.  (Later, Register took over Nashville schools, where he was able to leave on his own terms.  It’s possible he learned from mistakes that were made here.  I’m not sure we need to be a training ground for someone else.)

Register’s successor, Jim Scales came from Texas, and returned to the Lone Star state five years later.  He received $282,000 of buyout money as a going-away present.

For those who can follow patterns, you’ll notice five more years have passed, and it’s possible Rick Smith will leave the party with an even heftier goody bag.

(Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a hospital executive, a baseball player, or a superintendent say, “Well, if I don’t have to work, I’m not going to take your money.”  Let me know if that ever happens.)

While Smith proved in his long career that he is good at many things, his shortcomings eventually rose to the surface:  most notably his communications skills.  In the aftermath of the Ooltewah crisis, people who had rarely noticed our public schools saw the 2015 achievement scores and said Smith should be held accountable.  Whether the blame should fall squarely on his shoulders is now a moot point.  The fact is, we have some serious work to do.

So, as Board member David Testerman famously shouted last week, who would want to take this job? Well, for a high six-figure salary, and the usual lucrative buyout clause, a lot of people would. But do we want a person who’s on every “headhunter” list, trying to build a resume’ to advance their future earnings?  No.  Do we want someone who’s already retired a time or two, swooping in for a rescue, as in “anything I’ll do is better than what they’ve had?”  I’ll pass.

While we’re on the subject, has a local superintendent ever had a paycheck tied to performance? Not that I’m aware of. And have we ever hired a superintendent with a background in business and management, as opposed to coaching and teaching?  You know the answer to that.


Maybe a better question would be, “Is a 75-school, 43,000 student school district in a culturally and financially diverse county really a good idea?”  Let me begin the debate by saying the answer just might be, “No.”

Assuming Smith deserves some of the blame for the Ooltewah fiasco, let’s be real: if you have a strong, involved staff leading a school, do you really need the superintendent of a large district to be responsible for what kids do on a field trip?

Naturally, we all wish the next superintendent will be a miracle worker who will please everyone.  I guess anything is possible, but it hasn’t happened yet.  We’ve yet to find a leader who can satisfy the Chamber of Commerce, the mountain folks, the business/foundation leaders, the less affluent, the rural residents, the North Shore, the suburbs, and the County Commissioners.  I’m not sure that person exists.

If you want to think outside the box, start here: What if we divide this massive school system into smaller, more manageable pieces, and put qualified people in place to run each one? I remember when individual schools had trustees.  My elementary school had a terrible new principal one year.  Parents complained to the trustees, who then complained to the superintendent.  Within days, we had a great new principal.  Try removing a bad principal in a large district.  Experience tells us the process requires going through several layers of management, and rarely gets accomplished before damage is done.


So how about a “mini-district” in East Ridge? Another for Signal Mountain.  Add one each for Red Bank, Lookout Valley, Tyner, Ooltewah, Apison, Harrison, Brainerd, East Brainerd, the Soddy/Sale Creek area, Hixson, East Lake, north Chattanooga and downtown.  Now you have fifteen or so smaller districts, averaging about five schools in each. There would be a supervising director in each area, who would be responsible for those schools only.  They would handle hiring, firing, and major discipline issues. Some current principals are certainly capable and qualified. Also, there are several outstanding retired principals who have great track records.   In a mini-district, if you have good site-based leaders, there’s no need for a high and mighty superintendent.  Yes, someone has to pay the bills and sign the checks, but there’s already solid financial leadership in place to handle those chores.

Our current school district is headquartered at a former Army ammunition plant.  Yes, it’s centrally located in the heart of the county, but who wants to go there every time there is a problem?  Folks who live in Dayton, Athens, and Chickamauga take their problems to an office just down the street.  Maybe that should happen here too.  Let somebody good run the East Ridge area schools, and if you have a problem, get it solved on Ringgold Road.  The sad fact is, most Hamilton County parents cannot tell you the name of their School Board member.  They see this giant monolith called “The Central Office,” which seems cold and unwelcoming.  Perhaps we should bring their district office closer to their home.

This might also encourage our incorporated towns like East Ridge, Red Bank and the others, to be more hands-on with their neighborhood schools.  Some of these local officials will tell you, they feel they don’t have much of a voice under the current set-up.  This is because they truly do not.

What about the always-complicated formula for school funding, now dumped in one giant pot on Bonny Oaks Drive? Divide it up according to student population.  County Commissioners are entrusted to take care of their districts.  This would give them greater oversight of individual schools, and more personal contact with the people who run them.  And about that nine-member School Board we’ve had for decades?  Maybe it’s time to re-think that too.  Perhaps each “mini-district” should have a voice at the table.


As for our lowest-performing schools, yes, they need extra help.  We’re being told yet again, that  “The state” might soon take them over.  Well, whoever “the state” is, come on in.  Does “the state” have people who will go door-to-door in our poorest neighborhoods, convincing kids to attend school, and helping parents prepare them to learn?  We don’t have enough people to do that now. Maybe if these schools were in smaller, more community-based districts, they would get the personalized attention they need.

If “the state” can’t handle it, maybe our civic leaders can.  They’ve been quoted a lot lately, as in “civic leaders” are unhappy with the direction of county schools.  In many cases, these leaders of government, chambers, foundations and the like have never really been involved in public schools, but they have strong opinions about them.  So come on in, get your feet wet.  If the private schools do it better, show the public schools how it’s done, while doing so with a fraction of the parental support.

Magnet schools frequently outrank many other public schools too.  I’ve heard some of their advocates say, “I wish every school could be like ours.”  So why don’t we hold a lottery for every school, require parental involvement, and hire only the best teachers.  Charter schools are also on the rise, and vouchers are gaining steam in the State Legislature.  At this rate, Hamilton County Schools, as we know them today, cannot keep operating like it’s 1999….or earlier.

Are the ideas I listed above outlandish and unrealistic? Probably.  Such changes would be endlessly debated, and then take years to enact.  Meanwhile the impending Central Office exodus will begin before the spring daffodils bloom.


Before you dismiss radical change as foolish, let’s look in the mirror.  Hamilton County schools are not adapting to a changing educational environment.  We’re running a Blockbuster school system in a Netflix world.  We have a K-Mart administrative mentality, while the public is demanding Amazon “at your door” customer service.

Whatever direction we take, here is something we can do now: stop padding and extending the contracts of superintendents who are not going anywhere.  Neither Jim Scales nor Rick Smith, both well into their 60s, were about to be snapped up by another school district.  So why do School Board members insist on treating them as if they are hot properties? This can’t happen again, right?

Certainly, the school district is not a total disaster.  There are pockets of greatness, as I’ve learned from countless positive stories I’ve reported over the years.  Hamilton County has some all-star teachers and amazing students.  We should celebrate those success stories each day.  As a whole, however, it’s clear this school system isn’t keeping pace with others in nearby counties and states.  If it’s true that numbers don’t lie, perhaps we should listen to them.

Agree or disagree, I’d like to hear your ideas.  Now is a good time to start with a clean slate.  If history keeps repeating itself, in about five years, we’ll be doing this all over again.  Do you really want that?

About David Carroll

David Carroll is a longtime Chattanooga radio and TV broadcaster, and has anchored the evening news on WRCB-TV since 1987. He is the author of "Chattanooga Radio & Television" published by Arcadia.

18 thoughts on “Hamilton County schools: Let’s start over

  1. Annie Hall

    Smaller community-based districts don’t work in Berks County PA where I grew up. Each community has its own district – e.g. Exeter, Mifflin, and Wyomissing are comparable to Soddy-Daisy, Hixson and Signal Mountain respectively. Each district’s school board levies taxes. Not surprisingly, the inner city and rural districts have lower tax rates and incomes than their affluent suburban counterparts. It’s a mess.

    I believe the solution in Hamilton County lies in everyone being accountable for our public schools and everyone holding high expectations of all – as seen with our magnet and charter schools. A person may think s/he doesn’t have a vested interest in this discussion because s/he doesn’t have a student in public school. But chances are that person’s CPA, doctors, nurses and public safely personnel are graduates of our public schools. The issue is not whether or not we need a “local” superintendent; the issue is whether or not we are willing to fully fund ALL our public schools. Oh how I miss Dalton Roberts and Paul Nolan!

    1. Sherry Gish

      Amen! Please, please fund all our public schools. There are many outstanding teachers in our county who are begging for funding. We need to hear their pleas and respond to all our children’s needs.

  2. Bill

    I don’t think we should have school districts at all. None. Each school should run itself. The privates do it. Maybe there could be one guy to supervise the building of new schools when necessary. That would be it. Give him an office in one of the schools. Schools would be governed by a Board of Trustees, just like the privates. And by God these Boards would demand excellence from the principals they hire or else.

    No more bussing, which is killing all of the schools and is doing no good at all. Bussing is destroying the sense of community at all of the schools.

  3. Lea Ann Bolick

    I like the idea of someone with a background in business and management. Many are opposed to it, but if we continue doing the same thing, we’ll continue getting the same outcomes. A person who has been successful running a large corporation can learn about education and instruction; or at least be surrounded by those who are. Many use the example of the female superintendent who was unsuccessful in NY. But was this because of her business background, or her “personality?” One example such as this proves little. You are correct, in that the last time a school was named after a superintendent was before the merger, in the former Hamilton County Schools: Loftis Middle School.

  4. Katie

    I think you point out some great ideas. Especially in the aftermath of the O.H.S. incident. It has been made very clear, the current B.O.E., would prefer for any parent or citizen of this county to just be quiet, as if we have all been the problem here, not the incident or the individuals who failed to protect and help our children. I love the idea of smaller school systems, but I’m not sure it would have helped in this particular incident, then again, maybe it would have, I don’t know. But, I do know, I’m really tired of this B.O.E. trying to pass the buck and blame the citizens of this county, or the media, who are absolutely disgusted with the issue at hand. Personally, after listening to what the Superintendent and the B.O.E have had to say, back track, re-say and put blame on anyone and everyone except those involved, I’d like to see them all go. Like you said, start fresh, and maybe, put in place smaller school districts so that when there is an issue, it can be handled directly and hopefully more efficiently.

  5. Charlie

    David, you make many good points. Unfortunately, there are so many points that it is really difficult to address them all. Whether the district is large or small doesn’t matter as much as the communities’ involvement in their local school. Many studies have been done about this or that; but, in my opinion none ranks as high as the correlation of community support to a school’s overall academic achievement.

    Community support doesn’t just involve the parents, but it must have parent support & involvement first & foremost. Many of our schools are very very lacking in this regard. Not sure what a large or small District Superintendent can do about this.

    How many of your readers/watchers/listeners have never been to a school board meeting, but can spare enough time to gripe about what they do? How many have ever called a school to volunteer in some way? How many have time to watch mindless reality shows, but no time to be involved in reality that matters? Trust me, knowing some of the kids in our schools, and knowing some of the teachers & coaches can enrich your life, and give you a better understanding of what’s going on in our schools. It might amaze you, or sadden you?

    But, hopefully, it will 1) help some kids, teachers, and schools that desperately need it, and 2) give you the right to even express an opinion. You can either gripe, or express an informed opinion.

    I wonder how much time each board member spends in their respective schools; during the school day, at extra-curricular activities, and/or fund-raising events.

  6. Charlie

    Theoretically, a larger district can do better. There is a reason why companies merge or buyout other companies. They can reduce duplication of many positions, both staff, management, and facilities.

    Plus it allows a district to marshal more resources to handle emergencies, etc. But, unless organized, and managed properly, it can also fail to recognize small problems that can become larger ones.

    Sometimes a district superintendent and/or school board will give greater weight to the calls for help from a larger school with a much larger number of parents, and a population including more prominent persons than a much smaller school with less pull. I’m sure that many can rattle off some real life examples right here in Hamilton County.

  7. Jackie Caruso

    I am a former teacher with both the City and County School systems. I agree, the mini-districts sounds like a great idea! No one can manage a huge system and few feel ownership of the system as it is. Change can be good and now seems like a really opportune time to explore real change.

  8. Laura

    This guy? NAILED IT!!!
    Charles Bikas: “Because people keep trying to fix the wrong thing. It’s not the Superintendent or the School Board that’s the problem. Each of them have changed several times with the same outcome on the inner city schools. It’s the Central Office. The place is a cesspool of nepotism and incompetence. One former principal in Hixson even wrote a book about how corrupt it was. The people that rigged the lottery system are still the same people running it. Eliminate the Central Office by replacing the entire staff with ethical people, eliminate the problem. Otherwise the community is just repeating the same formula over and over again and expecting different results. It’s truly insane!

  9. Ken

    Massachusetts, home of MIT, Harvard, Boston College, Amherst, etc, is regarded as having one of the highest and most respected systems of public education in the country with bi-annual NAEP scores among the top in the nation. There are just under one million students in the MA public school systems. There are just under one million students in the TN public school systems. There are just over 1800 schools in MA. There are just over 1800 schools in Tennessee. Massachusetts has over 400 independent school systems, all governed by independently elected school boards in every community. Tennessee has 173 independent school systems. MA has liberal open enrollment policies allowing students to attend schools outside their own district if there is room in that school, and the local money follows the student to that school. TN has a very restrictive open enrollment policy in which the home district and the receiving must district must both “approve” the transfer. Bigger is seldom better in education. Smaller, independent school districts with independently elected school boards with open enrollment options provide more options for families to make better education decisions for their child(ren).

    David is on the right track but doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion. But now is the time to start a serious conversation in Hamilton County about the future of public education.

    1. Teresa Brenton

      It should be noted that Master’s degrees are required to teach in most Massachusetts districts and average teacher salaries are 2nd highest in the nation.

  10. Krisy

    Good article, good ideas. I’m not originally from this school district or this state. I am a former teacher in a top school district in the State of Florida (which is usually one of the top in the nation.) There are many differences between this county and the one I’m from. Size is one, I am from a smaller district for sure. But the main difference, in my opinion, is the level of educated teachers and their ability to change and adapt to education, social and demographic influences. When my son was in public school in Hamilton County (before we began homeschooling,) I noticed there were several strategies trying to be implemented in Hamilton County which were/ have been used in my home county for years, such as differentiated instruction, guided reading, reader/ writer workshops and literacy centers. Constant teacher re-education as the culture and society demands is a must! I was shocked to find that some of these practices were just now beginning to be implemented. So my question/ suggestion is this… have our county administrators searched the country for other counties with similar demographics who are successful in their educational outcomes? We can learn much by researching policies and procedures that are currently in place for successful counties nationwide. And yes I believe one of the truths they will find in such a search would be a smaller school system, with personalized goals as well as systems which offer vouchers and a good variety of educational opportunities, ie; charter and magnet school. Having these as options in a community really help keep public school accountable and working to implement new and diverse structures for educating our children and really isn’t that what education is about?

  11. Channon Hamilton

    As a parent of a 4th grade student in a Hamilton County school, I can honestly say,HCDE needs some work. As you mentioned, there are great teachers and principals in the system, but after having to visit Central Office this past year, being treated like a criminal by very rude office employees, it was clear, these employees were obviously overwhelmed, and very unhappy with their jobs. By the time I left I was in tears, not only were the tears due to taking off work 3 different times, trying to get a form signed which would allow my son to continue his hardship transfer to the school he has been enrolled in 4 years, wasting several hours sitting, waiting to talk to “the lady in charge” who took 2 seconds to tell me she don’t have time for this right now, and that I needed to get back with her when she returned from vacation, and my son would not be able to start school until the form was signed. She handed me a tissue, and basically showed me the side door (at my request) I was honestly too humiliated to walk back through the crowd to the exit! Luckily a friend of mine knows Jonathan Whelch, and contacted him. Within 1 hour he had it taken care of it and my son was able to start school on the first day.

    My son has been in the Hamilton County system since Kindergarten, at the same school. My husband and I were just recently talking about how each year, teachers seem more and more unhappy, which has a direct impact on our children.
    Something has got to change!

  12. piece d resistance

    I want to make sure I understand correctly Carroll’s “rough draft” for restoring the broken HCDE administration… add more administrators (@ additional cost to taxpayers) to an already bloated behemoth of a central office (where the pay disparity between educators and administrators widens annually). Given that we can agree to disagree, the “radical” proposal defies logic.
    And, “it’s likely many of his associates will follow…” with the implication that their righteous indignation will lead each to resign on principle. Or, one can argue, before each receives the proverbial “pink slip.” It’s all well and good to threaten resignation, but highly likely none of the indignant will abandon their cushiony workplace. Seriously. The likelihood is that their services are NOT going to be highly sought after. So, it’s doubtful these folks will leave, at least not of their own accord.
    Also, why should we, as funders of HCDE, not demand “amazon” service? How deep would you suggest digging into our pockets to ensure the kids in Hamilton County, as well as the (actual) educators, do not end up with ineffective leadership?
    How about working smarter rather than harder? How about, like our educators, the central office finds a way to do more with less (or fewer, as it were)? In other words, streamline the operation.

    “I want to make sure I understand correctly Carroll’s “rough draft” for restoring the broken HCDE administration… add more administrators (@ additional cost to taxpayers) to an already bloated behemoth of a central office (where the pay disparity between educators and administrators widens annually). Given that we can agree to disagree, the “radical” proposal defies logic.

    And, “it’s likely many of his associates will follow…” with the implication that their righteous indignation will lead each to resign on principle. Or, one can argue, before each receives the proverbial “pink slip.” It’s all well and good to threaten resignation, but highly likely none of the indignant will abandon their cushiony workplace. Seriously. The likelihood is that their services are NOT going to be highly sought after. So, it’s doubtful these folks will leave, at least not of their own accord.

    Also, why should we, as funders of HCDE, not demand “amazon” service? How deep would you suggest digging into our pockets to ensure the kids in Hamilton County, as well as the (actual) educators, do not end up with ineffective leadership?

    How about working smarter rather than harder?
    How about, like our educators, the central office finds a way to do more with less (or fewer, as it were)? In other words, streamline the operation.

    On a personal note, I find it a bit disingenuous to continue to refer to the rape and sodomy of a 15-year-old freshman as, you know, the “incident.” Yes, the words are inflammatory, however, this “incident” along with the subsequent actions of the powers that be (Smith, et.al.) is the catalyst that is instigating the much needed change.

    As for new leadership, maybe consider installing an interim business-person to manage day-2-days along with an asset manager to evaluate where to “trim the fat” and then take the kitchen axe to the excess. Then, and only then, bring a new superintendent in who will not inherit the proverbial baggage of his predecessors. This way, he/she will rise or fall on personal achievement or failure.

    Food for thought. Nom. Nom. Nom.

  13. Robin Vickers

    Dead on! You addressed all the problems that the Hamilton county school system is facing on a daily basis with great solutions. The problem now is all the nay sayers questioning it when what’s there to be questioned. It is a FACT that Hamilton county schools are in need of change because what they have had isn’t working anymore. I welcome your ideas for change and hope others in power will listen and get on board as well. Thank you for your enlightening, refreshing, solutions to what is truly a failing system in our county.

  14. Paul Bonner

    I grew up in Chattanooga in the 1960s and 1970s. I watched as families abandoned the City Schools when busing started. I was intimately involved in changing the appointed board into an elected one. Watching from afar I have seen it do no better. There is no evidence of a district organization that brings guaranteed success. The vast majority of attempts to bring a non-educator in as superintendent across the country have been abysmal failures. You wouldn’t hire a dentist to do brain surgery. There is a significant skill set required to effectively run schools. When the finalists talk to the community, listen to what they say about instruction. If they spew the typical rhetoric about holding teachers accountable, tell them no thanks. If instead a candidate talks about bringing the community together to develop the resources to support schools you might have something. I have been a teacher and administrator in the public schools for 35 years. When a district commits to support school communities the schools will do meaningful work. Chattanooga did amazing work coming together in the 1960s during civil rights and has witnessed an economic renaissance because the community had a vision and carried it out. You have models for community engagement that could be applied to the public schools. The real question is whether citizens want to do the heavy lifting.


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