Michael Thurmond tells me that he’s finally using that religion degree he picked up at Paine College many years ago at a time when he thought he wanted to be a preacher.
“I pray a lot,” he told me in a recent conversation.
What has brought this former legislator and state labor commissioner to his knees is his new position as interim superintendent of the DeKalb County school system.
At age 61, this lawyer from Athens thought he had seen it all, but Thurmond describes his current role as the “most rewarding” of all of his professional experiences. Instead of preparing for the next election, he says he’s “preparing the next generation.”
THURMOND IS unique in his position because no other school district in Georgia has gone outside the world of professional educators to find the leader for its staff. Nationally it’s a growing trend. School districts mired in low expectations, entrenched bureaucracy, poor staff and student performance and unmanageable finances are finding considerable success in candidates with business credentials.
Gary Ray, who has been recruiting superintendents for 38 years from his office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, tells me these nontraditional or “hybrid” superintendents perform well in medium and large urban districts because they know how to run a large organization and how to hold people accountable. Plus, Ray says, they are smart enough to hire people with the expertise they lack.
Both Thurmond and Ray understand that data is the key to running a successful business. Corporate executives understand how to collect and use good information. Data shows whether dollars are being spent in the right places and whether outcomes are consistent with the mission of the school district. Data can create new pathways to success for even challenged students.
For more than a decade, the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation has been running the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month training program to prepare executives from the military, business, nonprofit, government and education sectors for leadership positions in urban public schools. According to the foundation, since 2002, 71 of their graduates have filled superintendent positions, and more than 150 have taken executive positions in school districts.
THE RICHMOND County Board of Education is approaching a critical decision that will have an impact on the district for years to come. The summer departure of Superintendent Frank Roberson is similar to the way his predecessors left. Each was successful in another environment, but was not the game-changer Richmond County needed.
Our school district has so many great, dedicated employees and thousands of smart kids, but clearly the system is failing far too many children. We get sidetracked by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, Quality Basic Education and dozens of other education experiments and initiatives. We celebrate when the graduation rate of one school exceeds 30 percent, but we need to ask: Why not 80 percent?
No, I am not a teacher. But I did spend the better part of two years as business manager for three Defense Department schools in Beaufort, S.C. I also am a board member of the Georgia Charter Education Foundation. I know firsthand the challenges from both inside and outside the classroom.
MAKE NO MISTAKE: Our school district in Augusta is a business. It has infrastructure to be maintained; a transportation system that moves more passengers each day than Augusta Public Transit; a food service network; a library system; health services; security – the list goes on. The size of the staff and budget ranks it as one of the largest industries in Augusta.
Not lost on all of this are the customers of the system – the parents and their children who rely on this school district to prepare them for the future, whether that future is in college, trade school, military or business. About half of Richmond County’s students leave the system without a diploma. How is the education
establishment working for them?
A successful school district perhaps is the most important economic development tool we can offer prospective businesses that look at locating here. If the outcome doesn’t meet the needs of business, they move on, leaving our young people with fewer career opportunities. This is not conjecture; it is a fact. And no secret joint “Tea Party” of local elected officials will change that.
We can’t rely on excuses by blaming our problems on a lack of money, poor parental involvement, a bloated central office staff, poorly trained instructors or disinterested students. In the final analysis, the leadership comes from the superintendent. “Greatschools.org” says an effective superintendent has a clear vision; is an effective communicator; is a good manager; is a good listener; not afraid to take risks; and is flexible. Does the superintendent necessarily need classroom experience? I seriously doubt it, and so do many others.
Governing magazine reports more than a dozen states have created paths to the superintendent’s office that bypass the classroom. Georgia is not one of those states, but it should be. (Michael Thurmond obtained a provisional certification to take his position in Dekalb County.)
AS THE RICHMOND County school board looks for new leadership, I encourage a view beyond the fog of past practices. A wealth of expertise awaits on the broad horizon of a shifting paradigm by tapping into nontraditional resources. The school board’s most recent choices from within the education establishment didn’t fully deliver what the parents, children and staff of this school district need and deserve.
As Michael Thurmond says, “Fresh eyes can create new solutions.”
(The writer was Augusta’s mayor from 1999 to 2005, and a former assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.)