Did state laws keep Schools Director candidates away?

Thursday, December 4, 2008 at 1:01am
This weekend, the Board of Education will interview three finalists for the job of Metro Nashville's Public Schools Director. Matthew Williams/File/The City Paper

For an out-of-towner considering a job as director of Nashville schools, it doesn’t take much research to learn that the political situation here may not be for the faint of heart.

News of Mayor Karl Dean’s readiness to take the helm of Metro Nashville Public Schools, in the event that state and federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) laws allow him to do so, is readily found in any Internet search engine query of Nashville schools.

The school governance situation here recently merited a story in Education Week, a leading publication in the education field.

Even if Dean weren’t interested in governing the school system, the high level of state Department of Education involvement at Metro Schools — as well as the state’s authority to remove a director as early as late summer in the event that the district continues to miss benchmarks required by NCLB laws — is widely known.

So, with all of this, it’s no stretch to wonder if the candidate pool of finalists for the director of schools position here was narrowed by local politics.

But the consultant hired by the board to conduct the search, says that if candidates have been deterred, it has been by Tennessee’s open records laws.

As many as six very interested, promising candidates currently working as school system directors elected not to apply due in large part to Tennessee’s laws making applications and interviews open to the public, said Bill Attea of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates Ltd. (HYA).

Public interviews scare away candidates

Attea earlier had told board members that a good candidate for Nashville might be an individual in the beginning stages of what is looking to be a promising career — someone like, for example, Tiffany Anderson, a superintendent in Montgomery County, Va., who impressed some board members when she spoke at a Nashville education symposium several months ago.

Ultimately, however, no one from that candidate category chose to apply, Attea said, due to the public nature of Nashville’s search.

Board of Education Chair David Fox said he takes Attea on his word that Tennessee’s public records laws created challenges. Viewing the HYA Web site and seeing the description of Nashville’s open position, Fox said notice of the public nature of the application process was large.

“Before ours, they have a big caveat,” Fox said. “I don’t doubt that Tennessee’s Open Records Law puts us at a distinct disadvantage to districts in other states when it comes to recruiting superintendents.”

According to Attea, the quality of the pool of final candidates is nonetheless high. All have experience leading, successfully, districts with high-need populations of students. Furthermore, all the finalists would likely be available to begin work at MNPS as early as this winter, and some of the candidates are willing to consider interim contracts.

“No one’s coming in here blind and thinking they’re coming into a district that’s totally intact,” Attea told board members Tuesday.

Attea also told board members, at the time the finalists were presented, that effective superintendents often make their share of enemies, and that all the candidates he recommends have made decisions for the convenience of children rather than adults.

Bad press can follow applications

The warning related to bad press was warranted.

One of the candidates, Santiago Wood, was superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District for four years. In 2004, he resigned following controversial budget cuts and a request from California’s Allocation Board to repay $3 million to the state, according to local media reports. All but one member of the Fresno Unified school board voted in favor of accepting Wood’s resignation.

Wood’s application for the Nashville job states he left Fresno Unified with his wife due to her job change, and because he wanted a change of pace in moving to work as an educational consultant. Accomplishments he highlights in his application include improved test scores and graduation rate at Fresno Unified, a district similar in size to Nashville.

Another candidate, Jesse Register, generated some controversy after his 2006 departure from Chattanooga’s Hamilton County Schools.

Within a short time after Register being publicly named as a finalist in Nashville, The City Paper received multiple contacts claiming that Register had helped contribute to a $20 million deficit currently faced by Hamilton County Schools, and pointing to a special education-related lawsuit the district faced while Register was in charge.

Register should be familiar to Nashvillians already due to recent Tennessee Department of Education changes made at MNPS. Many of these changes were patterned after reforms made during Register’s long tenure — nearly 10 years — at Hamilton County Schools, and several leaders brought in by the state to facilitate local reform are veterans of Register’s Chattanooga administration.

The third candidate, Doris McEwen, has generated less media buzz in the recent past, but her superintendent experience also concerns a smaller school district. Her work with high-risk populations of students at Clover Park School District in Lakewood, Wash., garnered praise from Attea, though the district is smaller than Nashville with a student population of just 13,000.

The only candidate to return The City Paper attempts for comment was Register, who said he has been advised by Attea’s firm to avoid speaking to media before his formal interview this weekend.

Nashville Board of Education members also have been advised by Attea to avoid commenting on individual candidates. So school board members were hesitant to speak in much detail as to their perceptions of the quality of the applicant pool.

“I think that the consultant has done due diligence within the parameters he’s had to work with,” board member Sharon Gentry said Wednesday.

Board member Alan Coverstone said he agrees with Attea’s statement that strong leadership can generate less than perfect press.

“Different contexts call for different things,” Coverstone said. “Leadership takes courage, and people who lead in positive directions have enemies, just like people who lead in negative directions have enemies.”

That being said, Coverstone added, school board members are not “looking for more conflict or controversy.”

Board members will interview the three finalists in public interviews this weekend. Favorite candidates of the board will visit Nashville again toward the end of next week.

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