Critiquing the Candidates for Knox County Schools Superintendent

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

The Knox County school board’s superintendent search committee is due to decide next week on the top two or three candidates for the post from among six finalists.

Those chosen will be interviewed by the full board and speak at public forums on March 6-7, with the selection of a new superintendent to follow later in March. However, it’s already clear to me which of the six finalists is best qualified.

In saying that, I recognize that I’ll be subject to criticism for jumping the gun because I don’t have the benefit of the psychological test results or online interviews to which the finalists have been subject and which might possibly change my view. The search committee will be reviewing these at its meeting on Feb. 21. But that’s after the deadline for my column in this week’s issue, and the Mercury won’t go to press again until March 8. So I’ve chosen to weigh in now.

Before doing so, a few prefacing remarks are in order to provide a frame of reference. Based on comments received at public forums before launching the search last fall, the school board all but ruled out candidates from afar to succeed the embattled Jim McIntyre, who came here from Boston. “That was overwhelming from our public forums,” board member Terry Hill stated in a recent television appearance. “I think it’s a little unfortunate to have such a barrier, but the public is emphatic about that.”

If the public school firmament in Tennessee were stable, that would be most unfortunate in my view. But the landscape is in a state of flux. Student proficiency assessments have become a moving target; teacher evaluations based on them are convoluted; and provision for ranking each public school with a single letter grade seems simplistic. Pressures are also mounting to divert funds from public schools to pay the tuition of students who opt to attend a private school instead. So I put a premium of having a superintendent who is conversant with all these issues and with the powers that be in Nashville who will shape their outcomes.

That said, the process of elimination by which I rule out most of the six finalists for Knox County superintendent proceeds as follows (with some perplexity as to why the two from out-of-state are on the list at all):

Terry Compton, for the past four years, has been the superintendent of a very small district in New Jersey and prior to that was superintendent of an even smaller one in Kentucky. I have no reason to doubt that she’s been a very good one. But the scope of her responsibilities bears little resemblance to what’s entailed in managing a school system with nearly 60,000 students and a budget of more than $450 million.

Stuart Greenberg, for the past five years, has been the chief academic officer of Leon County Schools in Florida with an enrollment of 35,000 students. Prior to that, he held posts in the Florida Department of education, headed a reading research center in Tallahassee and served for than 20 years in progressively more responsible positions in Broward County’s huge school system. Greenberg’s skills might well be adapted to a superintendency. And if he weren’t from out-of-state he’d be on my short list.

Duran Williams, for the past 10 years, has worked for the Tennessee Education Association and presently serves as its Knox County field representative. His only school administrative experience was as the principal of Cosby High School, a position from which he was removed in 2007. Williams’ presence on the list is a testament to the political clout of the Knox County Education Association. In a guest column in the Shopper, KCEA President Lauren Hopson observed that “I am frustrated with the negative spin that the upcoming BOE sessions will look like a teachers’ union meeting. To that I say, ‘Why shouldn’t they?’” To which Williams might well say “Amen.”

Bob Thomas is a 44-year veteran of Knox schools who has held the title of assistant superintendent-administrative services since 1990. But of late it’s been purely titular. Bob Thomas is a fine person who has always tried to be helpful in responding to my questions over the years. So it’s painful to me to have to say this, but he isn’t qualified to be superintendent. Most of his former administrative responsibilities have been transferred to Chief Operating Officer Russ Oaks, a position created to assume them. Others now report directly to the superintendent. And Bob Thomas isn’t oriented toward the academic side of things.

Jon Rysewyk was the rising star in Knox County Schools until he left in 2014 to become the director of the county’s first charter school, Emerald Academy. As principal of Fulton High School between 2008 and 2012, he is credited with a transformation that included a near-doubling of the graduation rate. He then served as the school system’s director of innovation and school improvement. And this January, just as the deadline for superintendent applications was approaching, he returned as interim chief academic officer. Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas declined to speak with me about the timing of the appointment or the fact it only lasts until Thomas leaves office in June. His spokesperson insists it wasn’t a contrivance and that he didn’t want to bind his successor. But it’s no secret that the school board is averse to charter schools, and the search committee didn’t include Rysewyk on its original list of finalists.

• Dale Lynch has been the superintendent of Hamblen County Schools since 2001, a remarkable tenure. While the system is much smaller than Knox County’s, its 10,000 students and budget of close to $100 million represent a near comparable administrative challenge. In 2014, Lynch was named the state’s superintendent of the year by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, and he’s also served a term as TOSS’ president.

Holding a position that’s notorious for wearing out one’s welcome or burnout, Lynch keeps going strong. “He goes to work early and stays late. He’s a team builder who has worked well with the board, the staff, the teachers, and his passion is for the students,” says longtime Hamblen school board member and former chairman Roger Greene. After some initial hesitance to speak about Lynch, the TEA’s field representative serving Hamblen County, Jennifer Gaby, volunteers that, “I have a very good relationship with him.”

When the chair of the Knox search committee, Amber Rountree, was asked in a television interview what the board was looking for in a new superintendent, she responded that, “I think the best way to summarize…is that we’re looking for a servant leader.” Not being familiar with the term, I initially winced at her answer, thinking it meant something akin to servitude. But then I read in a 2014 article about Lynch that he credited much of his success to “learning the significance of servanthood. I think leadership is all about helping and serving others.”

That’s when I had an aha moment and said to myself that we’ve got a perfect fit here.

And if Lynch could get Rysewyk to continue to serve as his chief academic officer, it would be a proverbial win-win for Knox County.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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