By Carolyn Bahm
By this weekend, Bartlett residents could know who will lead the new city school district. Candidate interviews on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday nights will conclude with a special-called school board meeting on Friday to review the choices.
The vote is expected to come as early as that Dec. 20 meeting. Although the interviews were conducted publicly at special business meetings of the school board, protocol did not allow the public to ask questions. However, the public can bring questions to the Friday meeting, said School Board Chairman Jeff Norris.
The pace is moving fast. The city board approved the school board’s proposed three-month start-up budget at the regular Dec. 10 city board meeting. Then the school board received the list of three candidates on Dec. 11 from their search firm, Southern Educational Strategies (SES) of Memphis.
One of the key requirements for identifying superintendent candidates was that each must understand Tennessee’s budgeting laws for schools, Norris said. That will be critical with the short timeline to stand up the school district by summer 2014.
“The turnaround is so tight, having a superintendent from another state would be very unwise,” Norris said.
The chosen candidate’s salary is budgeted at $140,000 to $160,000 plus benefits, and competition has narrowed to three choices:
- Dr. David Hill, director of academic operations for the Diocese of Memphis Catholic Schools; interviewed on Dec. 16. See his résumé here.
- Wayne Honeycutt, education consultant and former director of school for Loudon County Schools; interview slated for Dec. 18. See his résumé here.
- David Stephens, deputy superintendent, Shelby County Schools; interview slated for Dec. 19. See his résumé here.
The candidates have expressed several similarities:
All say they are enthusiastic about the rare opportunity to launch a brand-new school system from the ground up.
- Each also praised the initiative of the citizens of Bartlett, the city board, and the school board and said the work to date shows commitment and willingness to get the job done.
- They all talked confidently about selecting good personnel, clearly communicating goals, delegating authority, and then holding people accountable for their results toward measurable goals.
- Each also was careful to explain views on the Tennessee Common Core when asked. They said they approve of this as a standard while also knowing that the standard is not the same thing as the curriculum itself.
- They also each touched upon collaborating with other school districts to share resources and reach shared goals.
At his public interview Monday, Hill emphasized his experience working to design and then execute large-scale educational efforts such as the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, which a senior representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hailed as “one of the greatest, boldest, and most thoughtful plans” that the foundation had ever seen. He also said his design of rigorous new teacher and principal evaluation systems for Memphis Catholic Schools show his ability to support and improve teacher effectiveness.
After the interview, Hill said he has prepared and trained to be a superintendent; it is the major reason he decided to go through the doctoral program at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. He also feels well grounded in the state’s financial accounting system and funding formula, a point the school board emphasize in their questions.
“I like the business side of education, and I feel comfortable with that,” Hill said. “… I enjoy digging in there and crunching the numbers and looking for efficiencies. You have to feel comfortable with that.”
He sees himself as a leader with a collaborative approach, willing to listen to the other side and change views if persuaded, but also willing to stand his ground on educational principles if needed. “I don’t think it makes sense to envision less than the best for kids.”
Although public interviews had not occurred by press time for the other two candidates, they answered general questions in telephone interviews.
Honeycutt has held superintendent, assistant superintendent, or director of schools roles in Tennessee and Illinois.
“I think that’s a big advantage,” he said. “If you’ve never been a superintendent or director, you don’t necessary realize the stress and pressures.”
He also cited his experience in leading the consolidation of two districts to form a new one and the benefits of his being a neutral professional who comes from outside Bartlett and Shelby County.
He brings baggage to the interview process, however, as his rating was poor and his contract was not renewed as Loudon County Director of Schools in 2011. Honeycutt said it was disappointing but that it happened because he inherited a school system mired in multiple controversies and financial issues.
He cited fire marshall closures of some schools, outdated air conditioning, roofs nearing collapse, and other factors for a system that he estimates was about 25 years behind in its building program. A contentious relationship between the county commission and school board, a failed vote on a wheel tax, and abrupt school board leadership changes made it all rougher.
However, Honeycutt also said he worked hard and did his job well.
“I went in with the mandate to try to get a building program and try to fix the schools, and I was able to do that,” he said.
He sees the Bartlett position as a rare and valuable opportunity to design and administer an effective and exceptional program.
“You’ve got a community that’s obviously well educated,” he noted. “Obviously, they’ve got the education of their children at heart.”
Stephens lives in Bartlett and has been in Shelby County his entire life, and his children are Bartlett students.
“I want my kids to have a great education,” he said. “And if my kids can, I want everybody’s children to have that kind of education.”
He seems himself as uniquely positioned to lead Bartlett into a successful new school program. He has been the Bolton principal and has hired and evaluated some of the principals in the schools he would oversee as superintendent.
“My house is within walking distance from Altruria Elementary,” he said. “I have relationships with every one of the principals and assistant principals and a good number of the teachers.”
He also was one of seven members of the transition steering committee for combining the Shelby County and Memphis City Schools and has worked on the project exclusively for the past year and a half.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s ever been at the epicenter of the largest merger in U.S. history, which is what that was,” Stephens said.
He cited 50- to 60-hour work weeks and experience in operations, payroll, finance, curriculum, and all other aspects of school district administration.
“I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I think I’ve got a few bruises and scars from learning from this experience. I’ve been exposed to every aspect of putting a school district together,” he said.
Stephens believes the critical factor for the school district’s success will be putting in the right personnel and gathering the right tools and information to prepare a budget quickly.
“It’s going to be a heavy lift,” he continued. “A lot of work has to be done in a short period of time, but it’s doable.”
He doesn’t imagine the new superintendent slowly taking first steps, he said.
“It’s going to be ‘hit the ground and run.’”