published Monday, July 9th, 2012

Rick Smith's first year: Stability, few surprises

Rick Smith is finishing his first year as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Rick Smith is finishing his first year as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Photo by Dan Henry.
Poll
Do you think schools chief Rick Smith is doing a good job?

There have been small disappointments, political tiffs and a few cringe-worthy headlines, but in his first year, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith has maintained the favor of those who initially brought him into power.

Some say Smith lacks vision and has little in the way of long-term goals. Others say to watch out, that he's just getting started.

His biggest supporters depict a steady and stable leader, one who has kept progress on track.

"I think overall Rick's done a decent job," said Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, who for years advocated for Smith's promotion to superintendent.

Even detractors say Smith hasn't done anything greatly to surprise, beat or fall short of expectations.

"Pretty much what I expected. Not any real big surprises," said school board member Linda Mosley, who originally objected to Smith's hiring.

Hailed as a local with years of valuable experience in the school system, Smith was supposed to set the system on the right course and ease the worries of those who distrusted outsiders like former Superintendent Jim Scales.

A divided board last year voted to buy out Scales' contract and quickly put Smith -- who had tried to get the job before — in the superintendent's office.

This year, board members and commissioners have had their issues with him. But now, after wrapping up his first school year, Smith seems to be performing largely as fans and rivals predicted.

•••

From his office on Bonny Oaks Drive, Smith controls a $380 million budget and steers one of the largest school systems in the state: more than 41,000 students, 80 schools and more than 5,000 employees.

He and the elected school board set the tone for all educational policy in Hamilton County. His leadership affects which principals work at which schools, what books are used in the classroom and even which schools children will attend.

Smith said he has made tough choices that were long overdue.

He spearheaded a controversial rezoning package for schools in the East Hamilton and Ooltewah areas. He shook up staff at the central office. This summer, he made one of the largest-ever moves of principals and assistant principals: About one-third of the schools will have new principals next year.

And he regained control of long-held payment-in-lieu-of-taxes funds from the County Commission. Known as PILOTs, the agreements often are given to lure new businesses such as Volkswagen to the area. Under PILOT agreements, businesses don't have to pay full property taxes for a certain number of years, but they must pay the share of property tax that goes to schools. The commission had withheld some of the money during Scales' administration, saying it wanted to be able to approve its use.

But Smith said he's most proud of his work obtaining a $1.8 million state grant to open a science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM -- school here in the fall.

"It was a busy year. We took care of several things that needed to be attended to," Smith said.

He said much of his first year has focused on building relationships with political and business leaders and community residents.

His leadership team, purposely made up of many former principals, has focused much time this year on teacher evaluations -- an emotional and monumental task with the addition of new statewide laws that require more and tougher evaluations. Smith hopes to focus time and resources in the coming year on updating the district's outdated technology.

•••

County commissioners say the school system and the county enjoy a better relationship under Smith's leadership than before.

Though Smith held high administrative roles for years, Henry said there's still a learning curve to being the school system's top dog. He said the superintendent has relied on others this first year in decision-making, but thinks that will change.

"Once he starts making his decisions himself in a large regard, he's going to do much better. But I think he's getting there," Henry said.

Henry took issue with some of Smith's moves, including his involvement in a proposed three-way property swap with the city and the Chattanooga Housing Authority for the site where East Brainerd Elementary School now sits, and the passage of new zoning boundaries for schools in the eastern part of the county.

Both were controversial moves that angered many commissioners and residents. But Henry doesn't see either of those as dealbreakers and still views Smith as the best man for the job.

"I think, given time, Rick's going to be one of the best superintendents we've had here in Hamilton County," Henry said.

•••

Several school board members have noted problems with Smith's communication skills.

Mosley said last week that the superintendent has had "a total lack of communication" with the board.

Rhonda Thurman, one of Smith's biggest supporters, acknowledges the communication gap and counts it among her biggest disappointments with Smith.

"As a board, we'll just have to tell him we want it fixed. He works for us," she said.

It's an area Smith said he's committed to improving.

Thurman and other supporters credit Smith for bringing calm to the central office and improving the morale of teachers, administrators and other employees. She said she's now "just giving him time to get his feet wet."

Mosley said Smith hasn't rocked the boat too much, but hasn't done anything too remarkable, either.

"For the most part, he's doing a good job just keeping it in the middle of the road and moving us along," she said.

School board Chairman Mike Evatt said Smith handled the transition to the top with composure and has become a formidable politician.

"In his role as superintendent, he has to work with 18 different personalities: nine commissioners and nine board members," he said.

•••

Smith caught the scorn of many parents this spring during a rezoning process designed to relieve overcrowding at East Hamilton Middle-High and other area schools. Parents were outraged when Smith and his staff unveiled the rezoning plans without community input and seemed unwilling to budge on suggested changes.

In response, the board tapped a committee of concerned parents to study the plans. The group met several times, but parents claimed that administrators weren't open to compromise.

Steven Purcell, one of the committee members who had the opportunity to work closely with Smith, said that issue demonstrated a lack of preparation by system administrators.

He described the superintendent's demeanor during the discussions as that of a principal or coach.

"I could tell he was used to dealing with kids and telling them what to do. And that's pretty much how I felt things were going," he said.

While the parents were disappointed in the outcome of the effort -- the rezoning went through largely as originally planned -- Purcell concedes that wasn't all the superintendent's doing. The board holds some blame, and Smith was never going to please all the parents, Purcell said.

"I don't think it was an opportunity for him to shine," Purcell said. "It wasn't one he could walk into and make everybody happy."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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