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.
LET’S THINK SMALL
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.
IS THIS REALLY A GOOD IDEA?
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.
SITE-BASED MANAGEMENT: MINI-DISTRICTS
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.
IS “THE STATE” COMING?
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.
A BLOCKBUSTER SCHOOL SYSTEM IN A NETFLIX WORLD
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?