published Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Hamilton County school board gets behind Rick Smith

Rick Smith is the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Rick Smith is the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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Rick Smith school board evaluation
Rick Smith school board evaluation

CRITIQUING THE CRITIQUE

Nowadays, student test score results are being tied to everything from student grades to teacher and principal evaluation scores. But superintendent evaluations remain largely based on subjective measures.

And that's the case in Hamilton County. Of 50 rubric points on Superintendent Rick Smith's evaluation, 24 areas judge his relationship with the school board and community. Educational leadership takes up seven slots on the evaluation and strategic planning accounts for three.

Some districts recently have sought to tie student test score results into schools chief evaluations. And that's something board Chairman Mike Evatt says he's willing to consider for Smith's future evaluations.

But most superintendent evaluations still don't at all mirror the changes that have been handed down to teachers and principals in recent years, said Joseph Murphy, the Frank W. Mayborn Chair and associate dean at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College.

"I don't think it's unreasonable to hold superintendents accountable to outcome measures like teachers," he said.

Yet it's much easier for a board to use a checklist or rubric-style evaluation like Hamilton County's.

"It's hard to evaluate people when you don't really know the job," Murphy said. "And board members most of the time don't really know the business of teaching and learning."

Rick Smith has come a long way in two years.

After several failed bids to get Hamilton County's top education job, Smith was promoted to superintendent in May 2011 on a 5-4 vote. His appointment and the ouster of former Superintendent Jim Scales stirred local activists, sparked dozens of local headlines and deeply divided the board.

But since then, a few board members have left, new ones have taken seats and old foes have changed their tune about Smith. Opposition to the superintendent has waned, and board members say the body is more united.

That unity is part of the reason board member Joe Galloway wants to give Smith a raise from his current salary of about $160,000. Scales was paid more than $200,000 a year.

"He's responsible for the unity we have," Galloway said of Smith. "Our schools are improving and I'm extremely excited."

Evatt said the atmosphere has changed.

"I think Rick has worked real hard the last two years to bring the board together and involve all the board members, not just a few."

Evatt said "what you see is what you get" with Smith, who doesn't play favorites on the board. When one board member asks about a budget line item or an issue at a school, he shares the information with all of them, Evatt said.

Evatt consistently has strongly supported Smith. But even Jeffrey Wilson, who originally voted against Scales' ouster and Smith's hiring, has started to come around.

"We've got some areas where we need to make some strides as a district," Wilson said. "But in terms of him as a director, I think he's done a good job. I think he's improving, which is what you want to see."

Board members credit Smith with building relationships, and in some cases mending fences with local community groups and politicians.

That's been his intent, Smith said.

"This system had to step away from itself and start forming relationships," he said in an interview last week.

It seems Smith is earning the favor of new board members, too.

Jonathan Welch, Donna Horn and Greg Martin -- all brought on within the past 14 months -- judged Smith as meeting or exceeding expectations on his evaluation released last week. Overall, the board gave him an average score of 3.74 on a one-through-five scale, where a three means Smith is meeting expectations and a four is above expectations.

But a school board's evaluation of a superintendent doesn't carry the same weight as teacher and principal evaluations, which can serve as protection or ammunition depending on the outcome.

"He could get a five across the board and next September be fired," said Joseph Murphy, an education professor at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College. "There's a political dynamic around the superintendency that is not there for the teachers and principals."

Still, positive evaluations could point toward more cohesive and stable leadership. And a school board that works together and gets along with the superintendent makes for more than just smooth meetings, said Randall Bennett, deputy executive director and general counsel at the Tennessee School Boards Association.

He said the fallout from a divided or dysfunctional board can trickle far beyond the board room, into the consciousness of teachers and community members.

"And I think that could ultimately affect student achievement," Bennett said. "I know it affects morale for teachers."

But that's not to say boards should be rubber stamps for a superintendent.

Bennett, a former school board member in Johnson City, said a functional board-superintendent relationship should resemble that of a board of directors and a CEO.

"A good board of directors is going to question things," he said. "And when a CEO comes with projects, sometimes they have to sell them on that."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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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