Interim superintendent needed for now

Published 10:26 am Saturday, March 1, 2014

By Jim Rainey

I attended the public hearing of the Franklin City School Board meeting Thursday night with the intent of suggesting to the board that it should appoint an interim superintendent, so that the process of turning around our school system, pursuant to the mandates of the Virginia Department of Education, could begin immediately. From my perspective, the comments that I intended to make were within the parameters of the advertised stated purpose for the public hearing. The Chairman of the School Board, Edna King, was not of the same mindset. Within a few seconds of my initial statement, she cut me off in mid-sentence, stating that she would not entertain my comments because the board did not want to hear my suggestions on procedure. Since my remarks could not be set forth at the public hearing as a result of the autocratic procedure and authoritative posturing by Mrs. King, I make my comments herein, which were as follows:

“I watched the video of the Virginia Department of Education’s Committee on School and Division Accountability yesterday, and the video of the state school Board meeting today. I was struck by the comments of Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Patricia Smith, that in her 29 years in education, she had never experienced a division report so extensive in immediate priorities that had to be met. She pointedly set forth the Franklin School Board’s lack of understanding of laws and policies, and stated that extensive training of this board would be required. Based on her remarks, comments from state board members, and the division review report itself, it is quite obvious that Franklin’s school turnaround is a top down process. The board must educate itself as to why it is currently violating more than 10 Code of Virginia statutes, and why there are 16 immediate action mandates from VDOE. Since the board must get its house in order, I would suggest that the board not rush headlong into hiring a permanent superintendent.  This should not, however, delay working on the turnaround, which should begin immediately. Questions that you, as a board, should ask yourself are:

How can the board realistically begin working on the turnaround while also working to get its house in order? The answer is simplistic. The board should bring in an interim superintendent. It is counter-intuitive to think that a turnaround can begin with the current superintendent who, in my opinion, no longer has a vested interest in our school system. The board should release her from her duties.  Continue to pay her pursuant to her contract, or negotiate a buyout, but bring in an interim to run the system so that the turnaround can begin immediately.

Why hire an interim? The interim will have an immediate vested interest and more importantly, those working for the interim will know of this commitment, and will feel confident that corrective policies put in place by the interim will not be subject to change with the subsequent hiring of a permanent superintendent. Further, and more importantly, the interim can access personnel and terminate ineffective personnel, thereby giving the new permanent superintendent a fully functional central office that will be well on its way toward meeting the turnaround mandates set by VDOE.

How does the board cover the additional cost? The additional cost will be insignificant considering the limited time that an interim will serve. There should be funds in the board’s current budget, but if not, additional funds can be requested from city council in order to get the turnaround going immediately. Additionally, there are potentially funds available through state agencies or educational associations.

How do you find this interim? Contact Dr. Al Butler, the former executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents as well as a former superintendent of our schools, who will, working with Pat Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Virginia, and Dr. Steve Staples, the current executive director of VASS, make it happen. A well respected, retired educator, who has had experience with turnarounds, can not only begin the process immediately, but can also assist the board in understanding its duties and responsibilities. As a matter of interest, both Dr. Butler and Dr. Staples are fully versed in the issues confronting Franklin schools, and have had discussions regarding retired superintendents who would be available to assist Franklin. Additionally, Dr. Staples was at the state board meeting Thursday morning, listening to the dialogue between Mrs. King and the state school board.

Are there any other advantages gained by the hiring of an interim? Yes. It will give the board a realistic timetable for a new superintendent search. Extending the timetable for the hiring of a permanent superintendent will allow an opportunity to interview additional search firms other than just the Virginia School Board Association. Remember, it was VSBA that assisted in the hiring of our current superintendent.

Finally, irrespective of the board’s decisions regarding the hiring of an interim or the hiring of a permanent superintendent, the board should involve Franklin citizens. We have a wealth of talented individuals in our community who have extensive experience in human resources; individuals who know how to hire, what questions to ask, and how to evaluate. These individuals can assist the board in accessing and evaluating candidates.

The hiring of a new superintendent to turn our schools around is the most important decision that will be made in Franklin in the near future. The City of Franklin will not rebound until the schools are turned around. Franklin is counting on the board to get it right. Please resolve to begin the turnaround process immediately. Bring in an interim. Give yourself sufficient time to obtain the necessary input to hire the right permanent superintendent. Do not rely on third parties for information. Do not rely on your chairman or your school superintendent for information. I urge each of you to reach out to Patricia Smith, the State Superintendent of Instruction, Kathleen Smith, the Director of School Improvement, Dr. Al Butler, Dr. Staples of VSSA and other individuals and educational organizations. I commend Will Councill for attending the committee meeting in Richmond yesterday. As the state board suggested, those of you who were not in attendance should watch the videos of the board committee meeting Wednesday, and the state board meeting Thursday. I am confident that all persons and organizations contacted by you will tell you that time is of the essence in beginning the turnaround.”

Unfortunately, there is a void of leadership within our school system. The superintendent has been given notice of the school board’s intent not to renew her contract. She is, effectively, a lame duck, and, as stated in my comments, does not have a vested interest in our schools. In my opinion, Mrs. King, in her capacity as chair of the school board, has failed to exhibit the necessary leadership skills required to oversee the turnaround process.

Look no further than her vote setting conditions on the renewal of the superintendent’s contract, and upon one of the conditions not being met, failing to vote with the majority to give notice. While the void in the position of superintendent can be eliminated by bringing in a retired superintendent to immediately begin the process of turning our schools around, the void in the leadership of the school board is not so easily remedied outside of a voluntary resignation on the part of Mrs. King. And that will not occur, in my opinion, due to her perception of her leadership skills; nor, will pressure from the community assist with a change in leadership until the African-American community joins in.

JAMES E. RAINEY is a local attorney. He can be contacted at 562-3111 or