published Saturday, May 28th, 2011

The school board’s choices

Following years of hostility from the backward-looking factions of both the school board and the County Commission, the school board’s split vote Thursday to buy out Superintendent Jim Scales’ contract for approximately $300,000 was expected and anti-climatic. It was also shamefully wrong. It smacks of a return to a parochial, racially biased system, just when the community stands at the threshold of the greatest economic opportunity in the city’s history.

Scales is the second of the two superintendents hounded out of office since the 1997 merger of the former city and county school systems by officials who fail to grasp the keys to the future: the necessity of focused initiatives to improve the education of urban minority students, and the necessity of improving funding to propel the school system to excellence.

Where politics reigns

The myopic factions that now seem in charge mainly want good-old-boy politics and puppet-string kowtowing from the superintendent to the parochial views that used to be the norm between the county governing body and the prior county school system.

Indeed, it is the County Commission’s hostage power of the purse which has enabled the Fred Skillern-led faction of the commission to keep squeezing the school budget and exerting political pressure on the board and the superintendents. His unyielding grip frustrated, hobbled and eventually ended the tenures of Dr. Jesse Register in 2006, and of Scales this week.

The irony is fully transparent. The very programs that Register initiated in Hamilton County after the merger of the two prior school systems — programs that Dr. Scales supported — are precisely what the school system has needed. Yet the political and school board figures against both men have opposed both their programs and the superintendents’ independent vision.

Ousted for success

Register was snapped up by the Metro Nashville school system after two years as a consultant. Nashville’s school board just gave him a great rating and on Wednesday renewed his contract for four more years. He has been praised for creating in Nashville some of the programs he initiated here to mitigate busing and raise achievement for all students: magnet schools with a variety of curriculums, transfers for minorities to majority schools, innovative curriculum, a single-standard diploma, more use of technology, and reconstitution of teaching staffs in minority schools with large numbers of failing students.

The commission faction led by Skillern and former Commissioner Curtis Adams succeeded in forcing Register’s departure in 2006 by forcing budget cuts and denying him a tax increase for the school budget for six years. Now the commission has done the same to Scales.

This year, the commission is forcing the school board to cut another $14 million from its projected costs for a status quo budget. Scales had drawn up such a budget, bringing to $35 million the amount he cut from same-service budgets since he arrived five years ago.

There are few places to cut. The school spends around 85 percent of its budget on teachers’ salaries, and the remainder on school bus transportation, books, technology and food service. The school budget — which is transparent and online — has been excessively lean for more than a decade.

It’s been further hampered by the state’s refusal to make good on the second installment of the catch-up state funding formula that for years left Hamilton County with the lowest level of state funding, per student, in the state. Just half of the $25 million in BEP catch-up funding promised by Gov. Phil Bredesen has been received since the BEP revision in 2007. The second half has been indefinitely postponed due to the recession’s impact on state tax revenue.

Though hobbled financially, Scales still managed to raise graduation rates and improve achievement gains, but that wasn’t enough to ensure his tenure. The 5-4 split on the board that had favored him lost ground last fall. Elections of three new board members put the parochial anti-Scales faction led by Rhonda Thurman, a Skillern protégé, on top by a different 5-4 grouping.

In the subsequent election for a new school board president, board member Everett Fairchild reversed a promise to support Linda Mosley, pushed her aside to take the chair himself, and immediately began brokering the terms for Dr. Scales’ buyout.

Picking a successor

Scales made his exit as gracefully as possible, but it seems doubtful that the anti-Scales faction will now act correctly in securing a new superintendent. They immediately installed assistant superintendent Rick Smith, their perennial favorite, as interim superintendent Thursday after the vote to end Scales’ tenure. Current board policy would prevent the interim chief from becoming the next full-time superintendent, but Smith’s supporters are considering dropping the provision and making him the new superintendent.

The Chamber of Commerce has correctly called on the board to conduct a national search for a new superintendent. Chamber CEO Tom Edd Wilson said a national search would ensure the most innovative candidate.

Future vision crucial

We urge the board, as well, to mount a national search. The school system needs a strong and visionary leader — one qualified by broad experience as well as a doctoral degree (Smith is not a Ph.D.) — to lead the increasingly diverse school system in a time of great economic and work-place challenges over the next decade.

Planners believe that Hamilton County, with a population now of roughly 340,000, may add 65,000 more residents over the next decade as growth spurred by new employers in the wake of Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical and Amazon takes hold, and as word spreads of EPB’s nation-leading gigabyte fiber-optic capacity for all customers.

Hamilton County stands at the brink of unparalleled and previously unimagined opportunity. This is no time for archaic politics and parochial, mediocre leadership. We need an excellent and well-funded public school system, led by a visionary superintendent, to make the most of this opportunity.

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rosebud said...

Dear Harry Austin:

  1. Do you get tired of writing the same ineffective editorial, over and over?

  2. In writing the same editorial over and over, do you, like Dr. Scales, accept pay for work you're not doing?

  3. Did your child attend a public school?

  4. If not, what qualifies you to be an expert on the subject?

  5. Have you ever had a meaningful conversation with Rick Smith, the gentleman you rip apart several times a week? Can you provide evidence that he is racist, with no "vision" for urban schools?

  6. If Fred Skillern is so evil, why did you endorse him for re-election?

May 28, 2011 at 9:02 a.m.
bpqd said...

I agree with the editorial's two main points: that we need to pay to make up for previous losses with inner city schools and that we need to be prepared to pay for education.

We simply cannot continue to deny payment for the expensive but necessary practice of educating our kids and ourselves.

We have to face facts: in order to survive, we need to pay taxes for education. Raising the money, through taxes, is the right thing to do.

Our local politicians will just have to realize that they cannot parade around forever, claiming to make government cheaper, and still expect basic survival for their constituents.

We need to pay for schools, and support those politicians who send that message.

May 28, 2011 at 10:34 a.m.
rosebud said...

Tell ya what, bpqd: take a look around. Look at the inner city schools: Hardy, East Side, East Lake Elem. & Middle, Orchard Knob, Donaldson, Battle, Brown, Howard. All either new facilities, or heavily renovated in recent years. All filled with computers, the best supplies, and so many teachers and administrators they trip all over each other.

Then look at East Ridge Middle/High, the schools in Harrison, Tiftonia, Ooltewah, Birchwood, Falling Water, Red Bank. Compare facilities, personnel and technology.

And you're going to tell me about some sort of shortfall on educating our inner city kids? Education is being handed to them on a silver platter, and they refuse to take it.

May 28, 2011 at 10:58 a.m.
JCsuperhero said...

For the love of God, please do some research. Test scores declined almost every year under Scales. The other moron liberals that hired the LOSER forgot to put a performance cause in his contract.

Fact. 1 Hamilton County pays one the highest per pupil rates in the State. 2 All the inner City schools that Scales "helped" perform below average. 3 The whole Hamilton County preforms below average.

By the way, all this info can found on the TN Dept of Education website under the "State Report Card".

Thanks for the "backward-looking factions" maybe we can do better.

Please quit writing your uninformed political nonsense.

May 28, 2011 at 8:27 p.m.
crow1033 said...

@superhero.... test scores dropped because TN FINALLY raised its academic standards to compete nationally as opposed to make it "look" like our kids are proficient by setting a low bar... that is why test scores YOUR research!

There is no one that will convince me that a hairdresser and an uneducated junk salesman can lead Hamilton County into a vibrant future. If Rick Smith is so wonderful, please tell me what he has done the past 25 years in the HCDE? Has he been sitting on an innovative plan waiting for his opportunity to get the 'top job'? Or more likely, is he indebted to Rhonda and her gang for saving his job and will facilitate her 'revenge' tactics at schools she opposes? Rhonda has never looked out for District 1 (just look at Falling Water) and has spent her time attacking other districts that she feels will get her the PR to run for bigger offices (when Fred lets her, of course!) There are dark days ahead for Chattanooga if the community doesn't stand up and demand the school board follow policy and choose a qualified superintendent. The County Commission has got to make education a priority and not a political toy to manipulate the voters. The taxpayers and residents of Hamilton County are paying a very high price for this behavior!

May 29, 2011 at 12:27 p.m.
chet123 said...

Wildman....this is why you dont have a School Board that have their political and religion agenda...Rhonda Thurman have no business on the School Board....Wildman can you see how stupid that sounds....prayer in school and thong panties(what she going to do peep under the girls skirts)

Tell Rhonda Thurman to teach her kid to pray at home...this is responsibility of the home and churches....This is what happens when back-wood people with no college degree over reach into the professional field of education...this board have cost hamiltion county millions of dollars....they will build on a system then later tear the system down.....Reynold,Register,now Scales....its a shame to have people with no college education trying to administrate a complex School System......they wont be satified until they get their bubbies in. Speaking about buddy..hmmmm guess it a conincident...Rick Smith is a close friend of Rhonda Thurman.....WAKE-UP HAMILTON COUNTY!!

Let the Churches teaches true prayers(christ never press public praying)He criticizes those who stood in public praying and not repenting....He called them hypocrites(a person pretending to have virtue) ....he encourage going to your closet and privately praying sincerely...AND not just going thru A motion

May 29, 2011 at 2:46 p.m.
chioK_V said...

rosebud, the answer is hiring qualified and motivated teachers who motivate their students. For decades, those schools you mentioned in the inner city always got the teachers and staff no other school would have. Now, the chickens have come home to roost, and those schools are paying the price for decades of incompetence and an inability to get rid of bad teachers due to tenure.

May 29, 2011 at 3:07 p.m.
rosebud said...

To Harry Austin and his disciples (PEF, etc): You may not like the "hairdresser" and the "junk salesman" (a self-made, public-school educated multi-millionaire), but we have this little system in place called democracy, in which we hold elections. And these two folks can keep winning in Hamilton County as long as they live. You see, the voters like them. That's why they've never lost an election. Funny how that works, huh?

May 29, 2011 at 11:41 p.m.
chet123 said...

rosebud...under democracy we can also vote to dismantle this school board ... most civilize people understand this systeme handicap the education of children not to mention the tax payer money that have went to politically motivated...dismantle it as chattanooga dismantle the "AT-LARGE" voting systems and cut your losts. go into a system like most of Georgia Have(Whitfield county)

You mention the hairdresser(soddy Daisy ..she charming the men with the big butt she has)

The Junk say multi-millionaire hmmmm sounds like to dollar chaser...what we dont need bro....greedy people have screwed this whole country up..

so i dont know where your values lay

May 30, 2011 at 1:27 p.m.
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