Broaden search for school leaders

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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. “” 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.)

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deestafford 05/10/14 - 11:35 pm
Education degrees and backgrounds are....

Education degrees and backgrounds are overrated as far as leadership positions at the top levels of education districts and above are concerned. What is need is as stated: leadership experience, hiring people whose strong traits complement your weak ones, and not being afraid to hold people accountable for their actions.

ymnbde 05/11/14 - 07:45 am
schools exist to educate

and public schools don't do well at educating
school choice would be better
every parent gets a voucher to be spent at the
school of their choice
schools would compete for students
and would formulate their "business" strategies
to create successful adults, the only measure of academic success
at private schools, students are first, and their results show that
public schools are rotten to their "common core," and that "education" model should be ended

avidreader 05/11/14 - 09:04 am
Excellent Column!

Your commentary mirrors my philosophy. Education is a business and the kids are our product. As a teacher, I have no fear of accountability. As a rookie teacher, I was lucky to have had some wonderful mentors; those who understood the value of a child's loyalty and how to pull it off.

Our new superintendent should be a business leader and choose curriculum specialists wisely -- and manage them with a keen eye. Principals should be chosen more carefully (and yes, tact; poise; and intellect should be a must). Principals should be allowed to compete fairly and not have has-been educators shoved down their throats simply because it takes an act of God to fire a worn out teacher. Good principals should also be good business persons.

One of my former principals considered it a good decision to blend fresh-from-college teachers with seasoned pros and maintain a strong mentor relationship. My current principal fully understands the basics of business and the complete data that steers the ship. If teachers are not performing, then there are consequences. Teacher absenteeism has dropped dramatically at my school because our faculty and staff are aware that the boss will not put up with it.

Mr. Young, maybe you should apply for the job. We need a good Republican in our fold. I firmly believe that accountability trumps a bleeding heart at every turn.

Bulldog 05/11/14 - 09:32 am
Spot on!

This idea is right on target. I have been involved in education for a lot longer than I would care to admit. I can tell you from that experience that ideas like this are exactly what are required to get us out of the morass that we currently occupy. Unfortunately, a considerable portion of those currently employed by the RCBOE will see ideas like this as a threat. It will take real leadership to break us out of the status quo that has doomed too many children to a life of poverty and dependency. It's time to wake up and break out of the mold that continues to ruin lives.

Riverman1 05/11/14 - 10:46 am
Army Retirees

I'd consider ranking officers at Ft. Gordon who are retiring from the military.

raul 05/11/14 - 11:09 am
another comparison would be,

another comparison would be, you don't have to be a doctor to run a hospital/medical system. The key is business savvy, not medical expertise.

Darby 05/11/14 - 12:13 pm
Sounds like it may

be a solution. Or at least on track to become a solution.

I'm all for "tapping into nontraditional resources" just as long as we agree that we don't immediately slip back into the "more money is the only answer" end game.

That has failed us time and time again. People who are talented and who care, will spend our taxes wisely. Those who are looking to a bigger payday will waste our resources.

Weed out the dead wood, and then give the schools the money they really need. But not before.

Kind of like immigration. There is no solution to that problem before you secure the borders. Our schools are hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate!

bright idea
bright idea 05/11/14 - 05:47 pm
Systems as big

as Richmond are likely to fail regardless of what type Super they get. No Super will ever be allowed to cut through such a mass of people without crossing some board member's relative who works in the system.

corgimom 05/11/14 - 07:59 pm
A school system IS NOT a

A school system IS NOT a business, it cannot choose its customers, cannot control its revenue, is forced to take anybody, and is expected to do constant Federal and state mandates without the funds to do it.

And just because Bob Young says it is a business, doesn't make it so. I submit that comparing DofD schools to RCBOE is like comparing a Cadillac to a skateboard. The two are not comparable in any way, and Bob Young only had to worry about the business side of the schools, and not the educational aspects.

I invite Mr. Young to start doing significant volunteer work in an RCBOE classroom of his choice, and I guarantee you that his viewpoint will change.

No private business could succeed, ever, under the conditions that a school system is forced to operate.

If people want the RCBOE schools to improve, they need to 1) raise taxes 2) get serious about discipline 3) hire the best people, not friends of friends and sorority sisters and fraternity brothers.

And I don't see any of those 3 happening, and it doesn't matter WHO you get as a superintendent, they are not miracle workers.

Maybe when the state takes over some RCBOE schools- and they are close to doing that- then people will wake up and pay attention.

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