ON SCALES’ WATCH
Six new schools opened: Orchard Knob Elementary, Soddy Elementary, Hixson Middle, Signal Mountain Middle-High, East Hamilton Middle-High and East Ridge Elementary schools all replaced older buildings. There are plans to build a new Red Bank Middle School.
Hamilton County public school graduates in 2009 attended college at a rate of 72 percent.
The school system’s four-year, on-time graduation rate has increased from 70.9 percent in 2009 to 80.2 percent in 2010.
With the County Commission, the school system in 2007 lobbied the state for a new Basic Education Plan funding formula. Those negotiations yielded $10.8 million in additional funding for immediate needs.
The school system accepted $800,000 from Volkswagen Group of America for teacher training. The automaker announced a $5.8 million donation statewide.
Hamilton County received $10.9 million over four years in the Stimulus-funded Race to the Top program.
Scales implemented a new administrator hiring process in 2006 that added the vetting of candidates by a community panel. That panel recommends top candidates to Scales for selection.
Scales offered jobs to every graduating senior who exits a Hamilton County school in the top 10 percent of his or her graduating class. Four women accepted the offer in 2011 and will be teaching in the 2012 school year.
Thirty-seven teachers were recognized in 2009 by the Benwood Foundation for significantly improving student performance. Teachers received cash gifts ranging from $5,000 to $10,000.
A principal leadership academy was formed to train potential administrators over a five-year period. The program is funded by the Public Education Foundation.
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education
Superintendent Jim Scales was flanked by his wife and his closest supporters when he announced recently that he is leaving the Hamilton County Department of Education, giving some appearance that the departure was his decision.
But Scales was calling it quits after less than five years on the job and a year before his contract was set to expire. He told a crowd of reporters that contract buyout talks — initiated by the school board — had been ongoing since February and that he would step down July 1.
In truth, his exit had been in the works nearly from the start of his tenure. Even in 2006 as the ink on his contract dried, forces were aligning to push the county’s top educator toward the door.
Scales went to work for a board that distrusted outsiders and was fractured between urban and suburban power bases. Scales’ predecessor, Jesse Register, the first superintendent after the former city schools merged with the county in 1997, long had resisted accumulated pressure from suburban board members and their allies on the Hamilton County Commission, but finally succumbed.
From the moment of the merger, some suburban board members and county commissioners favored an internal candidate, Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith, a holdover from the county school system.
“There is no reason for this buyout, and the reason that it has even happened is because certain board members, who for no legitimate reason, for their own personal agendas, wanted to see him gone,” said former board member Janice Boydston, who voted to hire Scales in 2006 and remains supportive.
Scales’ most vocal opponent, board member Rhonda Thurman, was the lone no vote to his hiring and opposed many of his proposals throughout his tenure. She said an outsider simply can’t do the superintendent’s job as well as someone who has worked here his entire career.
“He didn’t know the difference between Howard [School of Academics and Technology] and Hixson [High School] in the beginning, and that’s why we need someone local who won’t have that huge learning curve,” Thurman said after Scales announced his departure.
Some supporters see racism behind Scales’ exit.
“There are some board members who have not given him the support from Day 1,” said board member Jeffrey Wilson, who, like Scales, is black. “Quite candidly, there may have been some who were not as comfortable with an African-American male as superintendent.”
But Scales declined to discuss the matter directly.
“I’m a 67-year-old African-American male. I deal with race,” he said.
Clashes with the board
If Scales faced obstacles when he joined the school system, several missteps along the way didn’t help.
He had a handful of public run-ins with the board. In March 2008, some board members were unhappy with how he handled the suspension and transfer of a popular Hixson High School basketball coach accused of making a racist remark.
A 2008 contract extension when Scales was only two years into the job — and just a few months before a school board election — split the panel 5-4 along familiar lines.
Joe Conner, Debra Matthews, Chip Baker, Boydston and Wilson, all representing mostly or completely urban districts, voted for the extension.
Rural/suburban members Everett Fairchild, Kenny Smith, Chester Bankston and Thurman voted no.
The new contract stirred controversy on the County Commission, which funds the school system. Commissioners considered sending a letter or passing a resolution that condemned the extension, but that proposal failed 5-4.
In April 2009, Smith and Thurman complained Scales wasn’t keeping them adequately informed about major happenings. The issue came up following a fight between students from Signal Mountain High School and private McCallie School. Board members didn’t like that they heard about the event in the local news before being briefed by school administrators.
In June 2010, school board members carved out of the budget raises Scales had recommended for five central office employees, and in his annual evaluation board members rated him only “at standard.” Thurman gave Scales an “unsatisfactory” rating while outgoing board member Chester Bankston didn’t participate.
Scales’ order in October 2010 to stop student-led prayer on school grounds before football games set the community aflame. Scales made the decision after the national group Freedom From Religion complained about prayer at Soddy-Daisy High School games.
Elections Change Dynamics
After county elections last year, the board seated in September did not include Boydston, who didn’t seek a new term. Joe Galloway took her place, joined by new members David Testerman and Mike Evatt.
And just like that, the balance of power shifted.
Galloway, Testerman and Evatt all were former longtime county school system employees, and Evatt and Testerman made Scales’ performance a campaign issue.
Signs of change were apparent when Fairchild was elected chairman, defeating Scales supporter Linda Mosley. She contended county commissioners were tinkering with the board’s leadership.
Fairchild immediately called a work session to discuss Scales’ contract.
Scales saw what was coming and even acknowledged in media reports that the new board could be bad for his tenure.
“The last board election was certainly a turning point,” Scales said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “There were new members who, as board members tend to want to do, wanted their own person in the superintendent’s seat. Things started to unravel at that point.”
The only consistent sticking point in Scales’ evaluations was in the area of communication. Even supporters say Scales lacked in this area.
“At the end of the day, the challenges between Dr. Scales and the board appeared to be communication,” said former Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz, who was hired by Scales but left earlier this year for a private-sector job.
“Dr. Scales always did what he believed was right for students,” he said. “But unfortunately, that wasn’t always communicated the way that it needed to be.”
Scales says “communication” often is a term used when administrators and boards butt heads.
“When superintendents and board members come to the point where the decision is made that the superintendent needs to move on, this whole communication business always pops up as kind of a convenient reason,” Scales said.
Board member Wilson suggests that all the talk of communication really means that Scales didn’t politick in the right places, but he said that’s not really the superintendent’s job.
“I don’t know that he went out to seek the blessings from the County Commission, but in terms of communicating with the board, I think he did fine,” Wilson said.
Scales said buyout talks started in February. While those talks were going on behind the scenes, the board was already in heated budget talks. The county asked Scales to cut spending for the sixth year in a row.
This year, he was asked to trim $14.3 million, and board members asked him to find deep cuts in his central office staff.
Scales submitted roughly $700,000 in staff cuts, among them eliminating Rick Smith’s deputy superintendent job.
That was the final straw for Thurman.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Thurman said. Rick Smith has “given his life blood to our county.”
And it may have been a calculated move to force the board’s hand, Thurman speculates.
“I think he proposed those cuts knowing it would create a firestorm,” she said. “I think he wanted out.”
Under Scales’ contract, the school system must pay his $202,000 annual salary for the balance of his term, along with unused vacation and sick days. Scales also is vested in the Tennessee teacher retirement system and will draw about $18,000 a year for life.
Board members are expected to vote on the buyout Thursday. Evatt, Fairchild, Galloway, Testerman and Thurman have indicated they will support the buyout. Baker, Mosley, Wilson and George Ricks said they want Scales to finish his contract.
Wilson said pushing Scales out a year early is going to cost the schools unnecessarily.
“They are asking him to leave, so they should pay the money,” Wilson said. “But he was a lame-duck superintendent. He was not going to get a new contract, so why push him out 13 months early at a cost of $200,000? It doesn’t make sense.”
And Baker said the early exit will mean a rush to find a new superintendent.
“We’ve got a deficit and now they can just willy-nilly find this money?” Baker said. “Our job now should be to find a new superintendent in the light of day and get the best candidate.”
The buyout will increase the schools’ budget deficit to $14.5 million, but County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said the panel isn’t likely to oblige a request to pay off Scales’ contract.
“Superintendent is a tough job. I think he’s done an average job,” said Henry, who served on the 2006 search committee that selected Scales.
“My genuine concern, however, is how are they going to pay for this buyout when they are already strapped for money. We can’t just hand them that $200,000 and say, ‘Here, buy out his contract.’ We’re in a tight budget year, too.”
“Good results,” says scales
In his final weeks on the job, Scales wants to talk about his accomplishments. He has a 12-page document that lists all the system’s achievements since he took over.
Bottom line, he said, the high school graduation rate increased by 10 percentage points on his watch, and more students here start college than the national average. On top of that, he cut the school system’s budget by more than $30 million and presented five balanced budgets during his tenure.
“We were always in the mode of reducing, reducing, reducing, and yet we still produced good results,” Scales said.
At 67, Scales said full-time superintendent work is probably not in his future, and he’s not sure he will stay in Chattanooga after leaving the school system.
“We came and we invested in this community, so we’ll be here until we decide where we’ll go and what we’ll do,” Scales said. “If we leave here, it will be to go back to the Dallas area to be close to our son and daughters.”
Scales’ 5,000-square-foot home in the upscale Mountain Shadows subdivision was listed for sale last week.
“After this, I will probably want to get some rest,” Scales said. “I probably won’t do anything for a while, and I probably won’t get started with that until about noon.”
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...