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SCHOOL PATROL

State Sen. Gardenhire shared state report that led to Supt. Smith's retirement

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Rick Smith Rick Smith
HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

UPDATE: Six days after telling WRCB, "I am staying on the job," Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith has changed his mind. In a brief statement issued Monday morning, Smith said he was retiring effective July 1, 2016, and taking leave effective immediately:

"Today I am announcing my retirement from Hamilton County Schools.  My retirement will be effective July 1, 2016.  I will be taking leave effective immediately. Until such time as an interim Superintendent is named, the day-to-day operations will be delegated to the executive staff members and administrative assistants. It has been my honor to serve Hamilton County Schools these many years. I would like to thank students, parents and especially all Hamilton County Department of Education employees for their support. My family and I wish only the very best for our Hamilton County public school system."

Smith's retirement follows the release of a report from the State Department of Education that was highly critical of his administration's handling of "I-Zone" schools (Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Middle, and Woodmore Elementary that are among the state's lowest-performing schools. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) said he shared the report with local media "because it hadn't come out, and people needed to see it."

The report was sent to Superintendent Smith on January 12, but he did not share it with board members.  The resulting criticism is what is believed to have led to Smith's surprise retirement.

The I-Zone schools are Orchard Knob Elementary and Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Dalewood Middle and Brainerd High.  They have been on the receiving end of more than 10 million dollars of state money in hopes of turning them around, but the improvements are not good enough, according to the state.

Brainerd High came under fire from the state for shuffling of teachers, high absenteeism (30 percent of students missed at least one day a week last year), and 328 suspensions, 12 of which were considered serious.

In the elementary and middle schools, there are struggles with high absenteeism, a lack of teacher recruitment and coaching, and a need for more professional development.

Academic improvements have not been at the level the state had hoped, and officials cite "confusion" when it comes to Hamilton County's response to discipline and safety issues.  

Also, the state expresses concern that more than a million dollars in I-Zone funds from last school has not yet been spent.

School board members are scheduled to meet in their regular monthly session on Thursday, and must begin the process of choosing first an interim superintendent, then a full-time leader.  The timing of Smith's retirement comes at the same time the school district is preparing a budget for the coming year and planning various facility upgrades and improvements.

Smith seemingly dodged a bullet on March 7 when the Board voted 5-4 against buying out his contract, and he pledged to stay on the job until his contract expired in July 2019.  By retiring, Smith will be entitled to approximately $240,000 in accumulated vacation leave payments and sick leave payments, in addition to an estimated $95,000 annual pension.  Had the Board's March 7 vote gone the other way, Smith would have walked away with his full pension and leave payments, in addition to a $269,000 buyout agreement.

District 8 Board member David Testerman said he hopes the Board will select Dr. Kirk Kelly, the Director of Accountability and Testing for the interim position. Testerman said, "He is in education for the right reasons.  He has integrity, and would be just what we need right now." Kelly was not available for comment, but another Board member said he had been approached about the possibility of taking the interim position.

Late Monday night, in response to this story, Smith's wife Janet posted this message on WRCB's Facebook page:

"This is why he retired:
He found out late last week that some very underhanded things were done by those he had to work the closest with. No one can work in that environment. In his statement Tuesday he made it clear he would step down if his staying was a distraction to the system. It became increasingly apparent that the media was not going to allow that to happen and he could no longer trust those he had to work with."

Superintendent Smith did not respond to text and voice mail messages from WRCB on Monday.


PREVIOUS STORY:  After almost three months of controversy, Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith announced his retirement, Monday.

Now the clock starts for board members to find his replacement. In the meantime, day-to-day operations will be handled by executive staff members.

Smith's announcement comes six days after he told Channel 3 he would stay on the job for another three and a half years.

"It indeed was a surprise," said Dan Liner, Pres. Of Hamilton Co. Educational Assoc. "In fact when the announcement came across, one of the Board of Directors of Hamilton County Educational Association said, Is this a joke? Is this really real?"

Dan Liner calls the announcement disappointing.

"Just last week the Superintendent assured everyone, teachers, the general public and school board, everyone, the world if you will that he would stay the full length of his contract." said Liner.

 He says the next Superintendent will have a big job to do restoring trust.

"Reportedly there is a low morale among teachers. We are very much concerned with open communications, we're very concerned with improving the academic status of the school system," said Liner. “ One of the chief factors is teachers have been working without a contract since June 30, 2014.”

 A report on Hamilton County's priority schools, conducted by the state, shows schools are testing in the bottom 10 % of schools statewide.

Liner says contract negotiations stopped once talk of a possible contract buyout for Rick Smith began. Parents say they're ready for the focus to shift from the controversy back to the classroom.

"I think it was time," said grandparent Becky Nall. " I have two children that have already gone through the system and I have two grandchildren in it now and I just want them to be well taken care of by good leaders."

 The news of Superintendent Rick Smith's retirement came as a shock to Hamilton County school board members, who have criticized Smith for not communicating with them in the past.
 
"I'm just shocked," said Rhonda Thurman, District 1. " I got news of it from the news media and I know nothing."

Board members stopped their search for an interim last week after Smith vowed to stay another 3 years in an emotional press conference.

"I'm frustrated, extremely frustrated because in the days of email all he had to do is send out an email giving us a heads up," said Thurman.

Board member Steve Highlander, who voted against buying Smith out of his contract, says they're ready to move on.

"I feel like he made the best decision for his family and I wish him all the best," said Highlander.

He's looking for a strong leader to step in.

"There are a lot of challenges, I've spoken to several principals in my district and they hope we can get a very strong educator in," said Highlander.

By law, board members will have to name an acting Superintendent as soon as possible. The search for a long-term interim is expected to resume on Thursday.

"This is unchartered territory and we are trying to do things right," said Thurman. " Trying to make the right decisions, there's nobody to call and ask what we need to do because as far as we know there has not been another school system that has had to deal with exactly the scenario that we are dealing with, we are trying our best."

Smith did not return our calls Monday. In a statement to Channel 3, he said in part," It has been my honor to serve Hamilton County Schools these many years. I would like to thank students, parents and especially all Hamilton County Department of Education employees for their support. My family and I wish only the very best for our Hamilton County public school system."

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