Roy Exum: The Change Has Come

Friday, June 16, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

As each member of the Hamilton County School Board spoke in a work session before voting on the next Superintendent late yesterday afternoon, Joe Galloway cited a verse from Proverbs from his Thursday morning prayers as he leaned his support for Interim ‘super’ Kirk Kelly. Board member Joe Wingate found that ironic, since he felt his daily devotions pointed to the promising Bryan Johnson.

So when David Testerman came next in line, he exclaimed, “Lord have mercy, let’s have an Altar Call; I’m ready to vote!” And that's when the board chairman, Rev. Steve Highlander, let the packed house “have it,” as Baptists say, before adding, “He laid ‘em out!”

Oh, did he ever! Breaking from his customary and quite predictable stance, Highlander broke a 4-to-4 deadlock in the biggest surprise since the last Superintendent, Rick Smith, tucked tail and ran in shame over 15 months ago. Highlander crossed the river to “the other side.”

Highlander has consistently voted with former educators Testerman, Galloway and Kathy Lennon without pause, as has vice chairman Karitsa Jones, but Highlander shocked the many other educators and central office personnel who crowded the room by voting for the man he felt would best serve the Hamilton County district, saying firmly, “Dr. Bryan Johnson.”

And with that, public education in Chattanooga, as with School Board Chairman Steve Highlander, just changed.

It is neither couth nor fair to ask Highlander why he deserted Kelly, especially when Steve has championed Kelly’s magnificent effort to restore a semblance of order and esprit de corps. He stood with Kelly like a brother during the Woodmore tragedy. He cried with Kelly at the hospital, he sat through funerals, he has spent endless hours with the Interim since March a year ago and has not failed even one time to support the 35-year veteran of the Hamilton County Department of Education.

But last night, with a number of county elected leaders in the room, Highlander nixed the man he worked with for years when both were educators in the system and each was recognized as figures in the vague yet identifiable “good ole boy” culture. Since Kelly was appointed interim in spring of last year, amazingly little has changed in the Central Office.

The administration, where Kelly headed Accountability when Smith allowed the district to slide to its lowest ebb, has been roundly criticized but Kelly was able to bring stability in a way that a number of HCDE educators claim “improved morale and confidence.”

Board member Lennon said she found Kelly to be the overwhelming choice of the educators she polled but, according to others, that was not true with the general public. Respect for the public schools, as well as the school board, is still a problem. Bryan Johnson will have a lot of demons to exorcise as he must earn respect and support for the schools.

Like any newly-hired coach of any sports team, Johnson’s immediate attention must be focused on his staff. The instant Kelly was named as interim, he latched on former Normal Park principal Jill Levine as his top lieutenant, which was genius. He gave her total rein, and in turn she conscripted Justin Robertson from Red Bank and Zac Brown from Howard to form a triumvirate the likes of which HCDE has never seen.

In one year Levine, Robertson and Brown did more that align the system than all three previous superintendents combined. The truth is Levine would have made a great superintendent choice had she entered the application process because what she, Robertson and Brown have done – when it finally comes out – is miraculous. Lee McDade, who I believe was a ‘set up’ guy in Smith’s regime, is equally talented and valuable.

But here’s the rub: HCDE has no money. The new super needs Kirk Kelly to stay badly; in the past year Kelly has gained the respect of the civic and business communities. He’s the fresh face of HCDE’s turn-around. But to keep Kelly, Levine, Robertson, Brown and McDade is nigh impossible when Bryan Johnson wants and deserves to bring in young, enthusiastic, eager and proven winners to join him in his challenge to make the system the best in Tennessee.

The board has to support his personnel decisions. Johnson's other immediate task is to cajole his school board into a functioning body. Kelly couldn’t do it because he was angling too hard for the permanent spot. Johnson, on the other hand, can sell them on the idea of singing out of the same song book because he can illustrate to each the benefits.

For instance, not minutes after he was named last night, the school board immediately got so twisted over how many years to put on his contract Testerman had to beg the members “from second-guessing everything that is said! This is ridiculous.”

Most pressing for Johnson is that regardless when his official first day may be, he needs to appear in front of the County Commission next Wednesday morning and promise to provide a three-to-five year plan of progress so that the HCDE will have a chance in altering a FY 2018 county budget that gives the HCDE only a 1.9 percent increase after 12 years of no additional tax income.

Better yet, the Superintendent-Elect would do well to task the entire Central Office to spend Monday and Tuesday on just that, and deliver a rough draft to all nine county commissioners at 9:30 next Wednesday morning. Sell the commission on the fact our children need every chance to thrive now, not in the years to come. Now.

It is time things change. They just did.

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