Dr. Scales speaks about his exitWatch as former Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales speaks during an exclusive interview with the Times Free Press about the situation leading to his contract buyout.
After enduring five years of interference, thinly veiled animosity and outright opposition, former Hamilton County School Superintendent Jim Scales said he ultimately was ousted because he resisted pressures from county commissioners who wanted their friends in certain jobs.
“The school system existed for employment purposes and not for the purpose of education,” Scales said.
On a number of occasions, Scales said, commissioners or school board members indicated that they wanted certain principals in certain schools.
He said he remembers several times when his choice didn’t align with their opinions.
“That ruffled quite a few feathers,” Scales, 67, said from his East Brainerd house with a “for sale” sign in the yard.
The final straw came, he said, when he decided he would transfer longtime schools insider and then-Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith to a lower-profile job in order to save central office costs. The central office was a favorite target of some school board members and county commissioners who criticized it as bloated and too costly.
But Smith was the “favored son” whom some suburban school board members and county commissioners always had preferred for superintendent, Scales said. The backlash sparked outrage, especially from District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman, who said Scales was fighting a battle he couldn’t win.
In an exclusive interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, his first full discussion with the media since his ouster, Scales also:
• Warned that the characterization of him as an “outsider” and the emphasis on being “local” as the chief qualification for superintendent could hurt the community’s efforts to grow the economy and improve education.
• Said Thurman, who often complained about poor communication from Scales, regularly refused to meet with him over his five-year tenure.
• Said his firing was personal. “There wasn’t anything in my performance,” he said. “They just wanted someone else, and they were willing to pay for it.”
Thurman didn’t dispute that she sharply disagreed with many of Scales’ hiring decisions, and said she continued to believe that his choices were keeping Hamilton County Schools from raising scores on standardized tests.
She also said urban schools were coddled under Scales, while suburban schools were shortchanged.
“There are some people we know a whole lot better than Jim Scales,” said Thurman. “Dr. Scales brought a lot of this on himself. I did not like the way he did some of our good educators.”
On May 26, the school board voted 6-3 to buy out Scales’ contract. The buyout will cost the county between $285,000 and $300,000.
His last day in the office was June 10. His last official day with the school system was Thursday.
Not long after Scales was voted out, Smith was voted in as the interim superintendent. He is expected to be appointed superintendent this week after school board members changed longstanding rules to fast-track him.
As much as he could, Scales said, he didn’t go along when elected officials lobbied for certain people to get or keep jobs. School board members and county commissioners were supposed to set policy. They weren’t qualified to make decisions about curriculum or teacher and principal hiring, he said.
“It was very annoying and disruptive because you couldn’t get things done,” he said.
If an out-of-state person had the best credentials for the job, he or she should get it, Scales said.
He brought James Colbert in from the Dallas school system as a director of secondary education, and Thurman passed out material about Colbert having had a bankruptcy in his past. Colbert left in January and is now a superintendent in West Orange-Cove, Texas.
But Thurman always had different ideas, Scales said. In many cases, she didn’t want the school to hire outside consultants for curriculum and instructional techniques. She wanted home-grown people in school system jobs. In fact, when Scales announced he would be eliminating Smith’s position, she accused Scales of having an agenda of moving outsiders into school jobs.
“They said I’m an outsider. I’m a foreigner. I’m not from here,” said Scales, who grew up in Texas and came to Chattanooga from the Dallas school system. That’s a dangerous attitude to have amid an influx of outside businesses and industry from foreign countries and other parts of the United States, he said.
With that kind of mindset, “What are you telling businesses?” he said. “We can’t move forward if we are taking huge steps backward.”
Severe cuts to the school system budget forced tough decisions about personnel, and Thurman said she had specific ideas about how those cuts should be executed.
A principal at Sequoyah High School was forced to retire under Scales, and an assistant principal at Tyner High School had his position cut. Thurman said both men are her friends.
“Scales can do anything with personnel he wants, but if we don’t like it, he can’t do it,” she said.
On the eve of Scales’ buyout, the Greater Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to the school board urging members to conduct a national search for a new superintendent to ensure a rich talent pool.
“Our members depend on Hamilton County schools to produce graduates that will help their companies compete in the global marketplace,” wrote Tom Edd Wilson, the Chamber president and CEO. “We view the selection of a superintendent as one of the most critical decisions impacting the future competitiveness of our business in the country.”
A few weeks later, board members Thurman, Everett Fairchild, David Testerman, Mike Evatt and Joe Galloway outvoted members George Ricks, Jeffrey Wilson and Linda Mosley and changed hiring policy. The board no longer has to hold public interviews, conduct an outside search or wait more than 15 days before naming a new superintendent. It failed to follow its own policy not to elevate an interim to the superintendent’s position or choose a candidate without a doctoral degree. Smith has a master’s degree.
Mosley said she thinks the new board majority is making a mistake.
“We need the search,” she said. “We don’t even have a criteria. We need someone that is innovative, that knows about best practices. If it’s local, that’s wonderful, but we don’t know that. I just want to do it the proper way.”
Since that vote, the Chamber has changed its tune. J.Ed. Marston, a spokesman for the Chamber, said officials have met with Smith and support whatever the school board decides.
“The people of Hamilton County elected the school board,” he said. “We defer to them.”
The Chamber is set to receive $525,000 this year from Hamilton County.
A TURNING POINT
Scales said he always had opponents, but they grew more powerful over the years.
Thurman was the only school board member who voted against his hiring in 2006, and she remained a vocal political enemy.
In August 2006, two of his supporters on the board weren’t re-elected and another supporter, Debra Matthews, died, he said.
In the last election, supporters Janice Boydston and Kenny Smith didn’t run for re-election, and Evatt, Testerman and Galloway, all longtime county school system employees, gained seats on the board.
It didn’t take long for Scales to learn what that was going to mean.
“As elections happened over the years, things changed,” he said. “Superintendents make decisions and you accumulate strikes against you.”
One of the strikes, he said, was that he wasn’t easily manipulated by Thurman or Fred Skillern, the county commissioner from District 1.
At the beginning of Scales’ tenure, he angered some people by changing the process for hiring principals. In the past, associate superintendents appointed principals. The new process allowed a committee of teachers, administrators and community members appointed by the school board to make recommendations for him to select from.
Not long after the 2010 school board election, Scales said, Testerman began holding informal meetings with other school board members about transferring Scales to another job within the system. Testerman had run for election on an anti-Scales campaign.
Scales got wind of the plan. Even though it went nowhere because Scales’ contract stipulated that he couldn’t hold another office in the system, he said, he recognized that his political relationship with the board was unraveling.
To protect himself, he hired an attorney to examine his options. A few months later the school board’s attorney, Scott Bennett, called Scales’ attorney and offered a buyout. Bennett said a majority on the board wanted to get rid of him, Scales said.
Bennett wouldn’t be specific with Scales’ attorney about why the board wanted to be rid of him, Scales said. All his evaluations had been satisfactory.
Thurman often complained about wasteful spending, and the central office was her “whipping boy,” he said.
But the central office was doing work that was important to the schools, he said.
“Purchasing. Budgeting. Transportation. Reports to the state and federal government. Complaints. Civil rights and special education regulations. That has to be done,” Scales said. “We weren’t just sitting around drinking coffee.”
Before he accepted the buyout, Scales had planned on proposing an $800,000 cut to the central office that eliminated Smith’s and Deputy Superintendent Ray Swafford’s positions.
“It wasn’t personal,” he said.
But he never got the chance to carry out that plan.
Thurman also blamed him unfairly for poor communication, Scales said. When he took the job, he began a policy of meeting individually with school board members. But not long after he was hired, Thurman stopped scheduling the meetings with him, he said.
He met monthly with board members, but Thurman never wanted to talk about the upcoming board agenda. She only came in when Skillern came to talk with Scales during budget time, he said.
Mosley and former school board Chairman Kenny Smith said they met with Scales every month before meetings. Both said they knew Thurman wouldn’t schedule meetings with Scales but never understood why.
Thurman said she didn’t meet with Scales because she didn’t have the time and thought the meetings were a way to encourage secrecy.
“When I take off work, I lose money,” said Thurman, who is a hair stylist. “What those meetings were set up for was to keep him from answering questions in public.”
Scales said he and his wife, Cynthia, were surprised by the decision to buy him out a year early, especially because the schools faced a budget shortfall of more than $14 million.
He declined to talk about whether the decision to fire him was influenced by race. He did say he hopes the school board and its new superintendent continue to care for and spend money on the needs of inner-city schools.
Howard School of Academics and Technology, for example, placed in the state’s Achievement School District, has a long way to go but has improved graduation rates markedly because the right people were put into jobs and supported from the central office, Scales said.
Overall, many schools are being left in better shape than he found them in, he said. The number of suspensions and expulsions fell. Graduation rates increased nearly 10 percentage points, from 70.3 percent in 2005 to 80.2 percent in 2010.
The next state school report card, to be published in July, likely will underscore his successes, he said.
“We were not frivolous with tax dollars” as Thurman suggested, Scales said.
But Thurman said Scales was far from a success. Schools were continuing to fail, ACT scores declining and principals told her on many occasions that they were “flying by the seat of their pants,” she said.
On the 2010 state report card, Hamilton County received C’s in academic achievement and three D’s and one B in student academic progress.
“If you are giving students a diploma that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on, I think that’s educational fraud,” Thurman said. “Hamilton County students aren’t measuring up.”
And when it comes to the future of schools in the county, she said more emphasis needs to be put on suburban rather than inner-city schools.
Corporate, nonprofit, state and federal dollars are being pumped into urban schools with a high percentage of poor, black students, with no positive outcome, Thurman said.
“What do they want? I don’t think suburban students have been treated fairly,” she said. “Poor people learn. Slaves learned to read. I don’t know why poor people can’t learn to read and write. I have a lot of poor people in my family, but they are still expected to learn.”
Scales said he did the best he could to improve education, even in the face of $30 million in budget cuts ordered by county commissioners over his five years. As a result, the system lost many experienced teachers and needed staff, he said.
“More than anything, the issue with funding hampered us. We were always in a mode of having to stretch the dollars as far as they could go. We were always told don’t expect any additional funding except for growth.”
Still, Scales said he’s not bitter. A superintendent is in the hot seat, and things like this happen, he said.
But his wife feels differently.
“I’m a little bitter,” said Cynthia Scales.
It’s been painful to see her husband under fire, and it will be tough to leave friends in Chattanooga. The couple plans to move back to Dallas, near their son, after their home sells.
“Why couldn’t they have waited another year?” she said. “This just wasn’t right.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...