Monday morning, Hamilton County Schools Supt. Rick Smith made yet another U-turn in a two-month roller coaster ride that has had his own staff spinning their heads.

Two weeks ago, some of his longtime friends, many of whom head up the major departments at the central office, were making retirement plans.  Why not?  Smith appeared to be on the verge of a sure-thing buyout vote.  School board members appeared to leaning in favor of an agreement that would send him packing with $269,000 in buyout cash, $240,000 in accrued leave time, plus his (estimated) $95,000 annual pension.  As soon as Smith left the building, it was said, many of his top aides would go too.

Then on March 7, District 5 Board member Karitsa Mosley pulled surprise #1 when she gave a moving speech, just before casting what some called the deciding vote in a 5-4 no-buyout decision.  She said she had prayed over the matter on her way to the meeting, and made her mind up when she walked in the room.

It turns out Ms. Mosley’s decision (along with the votes of four other Board members) saved taxpayers $269,000.  It also may have inflicted bruises on Smith, because he has to be kicking himself now.  One more vote, and at 5:15 p.m. that day, his bank account would have been bulging.

Instead, the next day, he met with me and some other reporters.  I asked the first question: “Rick, are you gonna stay, or quit?”  There was no pause.  “I’m gonna stay,” he said.  He spent the next hour telling us why he was going to stay, through the end of his contract in summer 2019.  I think he meant what he said.  He knew there would be opposition, but he had overcome the critics before, so why not do it again.  Meanwhile, Smith’s top aides unpacked their proverbial bags, and breathed a sigh of relief.  Some even celebrated.

Then came Sunday.  The Chattanooga Times Free Press published a report that had not been made public.  The Tennessee Department of Education tells me it was given to Smith on January 12 of this year, and for whatever reason, it was never shared with board members or other media.  It is not immediately known who all knew about the report prior to the buyout talks and the board vote that followed, but it came it in the open over the weekend. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R- Chattanooga) who serves on the Education Committee, told me the report needed to be seen, so he shared it with the media.

The report itself, on the performance of the five priority, or I-Zone schools (Woodmore, Orchard Knob Elementary and Middle, Dalewood and Brainerd) wasn’t a total disaster.  The state compiled the report, citing academic test scores, discipline and attendance numbers, and studies on teacher quality.  There are actually some positive trends here and there.  But there are also valid concerns about a lack of upward momentum, too much teacher shuffling and not enough staff development.  The state also uses words like “confusion” and “unfocused” when talking about local school leadership, and that isn’t good.

As harsh as the content of the report may be, that’s not what sealed Smith’s fate.  The fact that it sat on his desk for two months without being shared with Board members was the last straw. They had lectured him frequently about a lack of communication, and learning about major school issues from media reports rather than from the man himself.  Now, this happened.  I’d say it’s a safe bet he got a couple of messages taking him to the woodshed about this latest misfire.  And if history does indeed repeat itself, he probably didn’t respond to those messages.

In fact, when he sprung his retirement announcement on Monday morning, many Board members got word from…you guessed it.  The media.  His aides say the announcement was sent to Board members first, but not everyone checks their e-mail every five minutes.

Incredibly, to me anyway, some of the Board members who went to bat for him in recent weeks, didn’t even get a phone call.  As for Smith’s inner circle, they’ll soon be “outer” there, so to speak.

So, the Rick Smith era is over.  He had a solid career as a Hamilton County educator. For more than three decades, he taught, coached, and led.  He’s a fine family man, with a loving wife, two daughters and a granddaughter.  In the end, his poor communications skills brought him down, which could serve as a lesson to those in leadership positions elsewhere.  Communication is key, and not to be underestimated.

Who’s next? For interim superintendent, I think Dr. Kirk Kelly, the school system’s Director of Accountability and Testing, is a front-runner.

Board member David Testerman told me, “Kirk’s in education for the right reasons.  He has integrity and credibility.” He’s handled the recent TNReady testing snafu quite well, fielding the state-created mess adeptly.  If he’s willing, I think the Board and community could rally around him.

As for the long-term: let’s get through the short-term first.  If there’s a silver lining to this recent train wreck, it is this.  New leadership brings new ideas and a fresh start.  I still think our county school system is too much for one person to handle.  We’re coming up on twenty years, and so far our record includes three superintendents, with none leaving on their own accord.  I’ve offered my suggestions for creating mini-districts within our geographically massive, 75-school county. That’s my idea.  If you have a better one, now’s the time to put it out there.  Because change is coming, and it will likely be the biggest shakeup ever.

Addition to story, 11:00 p.m. Monday March 14: in response to news coverage of Supt. Smith’s resignation, his wife Janet posted this on Facebook:

“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.”

Supt. Smith did not respond to several text messages and phone calls from myself and a fellow reporter on Monday. (DC)