Interim Supt. Rick Smith says changes are coming - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Interim Supt. Rick Smith: Critics "don't know me"

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)-  Even before his first day on the job, Rick Smith has had his detractors. The interim superintendent for Hamilton County Schools has worked for the District for 28 years. But as word spread that School Board members had him in mind to replace Dr. Jim Scales, critics called him a "racist," a "good old boy" and a "pig in a poke."

"The thing I want to say about that is, I hope my work ethic speaks for itself," Smith says.  Having served as a teacher, coach and principal in East Ridge and Soddy-Daisy area schools before moving up to Central Office as an administrator in the pre-merger Hamilton County school system, Smith, 58,  says he's used to being labeled as a crony of powerful politicians like County Commissioner Fred Skillern of Soddy-Daisy and former Commissioner Curtis Adams of East Ridge.

"Of course I have relationships with them," Smith said.  "You build relationships when you work in a school community.  I stay out of the politics part, but I've done whatever I can do to help kids learn, and sometimes to do that, you've got to communicate with community leaders.  I'm proud of the friendships I've made in every school in the county."

Smith grew up in East Ridge and attended elementary and junior high schools there.  His family moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where he graduated from Northside High School in 1970.  He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee in 1974, and later earned his Masters in Science Education from Georgia State University.


When Smith was chosen as interim superintendent on May 26, it was not without controversy.  A deeply divided School Board approved Smith by the narrowest of margins.  The 5-4 vote included biting comments from opposing representatives Chip Baker, Linda Mosley, George Ricks and Jeffrey Wilson.  Ms. Mosley referred to Smith as a "pig in a poke," saying she had never spoken to Smith about his goals or plans.  Baker echoed Mosley's concerns.  Wilson seemed to suggest a conspiracy of sorts about the Scales buyout, implying that Board members had long planned to oust Scales in favor of Smith.  Although Ricks said he would support "whoever is in charge," he made it clear that he thought "underhanded tactics" were employed in the superintendent switch.

Several times during the called meeting, some members of the audience, mostly African-American, hissed and audibly groaned when Board members Rhonda Thurman and Mike Evatt spoke in support of Smith.  At the conclusion of the meeting, it was clear to observers that a racial divide was growing. 


In a recent Chattanooga Times editorial, the five Board members who supported Smith were referred to as "the anti-Scales faction," who  "have long wanted to roll back some of the programs that (former Supt. Jesse) Register put in place, and that Dr. Scales maintained, to help elevate urban schools and boost achievement of black students. Those members have long favored current assistant superintendent Rick Smith for the superintendent's job..."

Smith says he has never met the editorial writer for the newspaper.  "The people who say these things don't even know me," he says.  He bristles at the notion that he's a puppet for Commissioner Skillern and District 1 School Board member Rhonda Thurman, both of whom have voiced their support for Smith.  "People would be surprised at how little contact I have with Fred and Rhonda," he says.  "We communicate on a professional basis, and I welcome their input.  But I try to have those relationships with all the elected officials.  As superintendent, you need to listen to the elected representatives."


Smith says he's also heard concerns from the African-American community that their schools' needs would be ignored under his leadership. He says nothing could be further from the truth. "I've been at the table for the last fifteen years, ever since the two schools were unified," he said.  Under both Dr. Register and Dr. Scales, I have been there when new schools were built in the inner city, and I've been there for the educational initiatives from foundations like Lyndhurst, Benwood and Carnegie.  I've supported them all, I've supported new facilities, new programs, incentives and extra personnel."

He added, "My goodness, my daughter Hillary has been a guidance counselor at Howard High for the past seven years.  She gets up early every morning to do everything she can for students in some difficult situations, and I support her one-hundred percent."  (Smith's wife Janet is also a teacher at Loftis Middle School, where he served as principal when the school started in 1995.  Another daughter, Melanie has cerebral palsy "and attended Hamilton County Schools all the way through," he says proudly).  He continues, "Ours is a teaching family.  I know first-hand what they go through, and no one appreciates good teachers more than me."


Smith says that fifteen years after Chattanooga City and Hamilton County schools merged, "I think that old city-county rivalry is behind us.  For the first ten years or so, it was tough around here.  But most of the die-hard "city" and "county" people have retired, and the only thing I see around here (at Central Office) is everyone wanting to work together for all children."


The journey to the superintendent's chair was a wild one for Smith.  Just a few weeks ago, Dr. Scales met with him to tell him his job was being abolished in the upcoming budget.   That news didn't sit well with five of the Board members, with Everett Fairchild commenting, "We can't lose Rick Smith.  He knows more about this school system than anyone who works there."  Ultimately, it came down to Board members deciding who they'd rather have on the job,  Smith or Scales, with Smith coming out on top.

He denies having a part in any behind-the-scenes conspiracy to unseat Scales.  "I'm sure some people believe that, and I'm not going to say I was happy when Dr. Scales told me about his budget, which would eliminate my job.  And if that's what set some things in motion that helped lead to the buyout, I really don't know.  But I was not involved in any of those talks, in any way."


His first day on the job was like many he'll face in the coming weeks.  He's facing the same $14 million budget shortfall that haunted Dr. Scales.  He says the first order of business is a Central Office reorganization, followed soon by some moves among principals and assistant principals.  "I want 75 effective leaders in our schools," he says.  "The principal sets the tone.  If you've got a great school environment on this corner, and a negative one a mile down the road, you have to look at the principal first."  He says there are some principal vacancies that have been posted, "but I want to take care of Central Office first, and the next step will be getting the principals lined up."

One thing you won't see, this year anyway, are school closings.  "It's too late for that this year, and the same goes for rezoning.  We've got a lot to look at down the road, but for now, we're not going to inconvenience parents, or have kids worrying about where they're going to school.  Those kind of moves need a lot of research and a lot of debate before you start moving people around."


He also says he'll be far more visible than his predecessor.  He is eliminating the position of Director of Communications, most recently held by Danielle Clark at an annual salary of $84,338.  "I will be speaking for myself, and I expect other administrators and principals to do more of that too.  I don't know if we can run a system of this size without a communications person, but we're going to try it and see where it goes." 


District 8 Board member David Testerman, among the majority that supported Smith for the interim job, says, "As far as I'm concerned,  he deserves a chance to be full-time superintendent, starting today.  He's from here, he's invested in the community, and I will not support a nationwide search because Rick Smith is here, ready to go.  The people don't want another nationwide search.  We've done that before, and look where it got us."

It's believed the Board will bypass a nationwide search and offer Smith the full-time position during the next few weeks.  Smith said that even though he's just two years from being able to retire with full benefits, he would like "at least four years, and then look at it from there."

He says, "This is an excellent school system, and I am going to work hard to gain the confidence of the public.  Our principals know I will support them, but they also know I will hold them accountable.  We have some meetings coming up, and they will know what is expected of them.  I want them to be active in their school, visible in their buildings, and I want them to know I will be available for them."


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