If the Metro Board of Education scans the country for a school chief, they might be able to count on the Frist Foundation to help foot the bill.
“We have said that we think it’s so important that if they conduct a nationwide search, we’d consider funding the process,” says Ken Roberts, the president of the philanthropic Frist Foundation.
Metro Schools Director Bill Wise announced his resignation at last week’s school board meeting, saying that he wanted to give the board ample time to hire a new chief before his contract expires next June. When predecessor Dick Benjamin left in 1997, the school board tapped the 30-year veteran of the local school system to help guide it through the costly and contentious desegregation plan. With that initiative accomplishedalong with a long-awaited school accountability programthe 65-year-old Wise has announced his plans to step aside, given that his charges are more or less fulfilled.
Most observers say Wise’s successor should be a big thinkerpreferably someone from outside the school system who can bring with them new ideas and perspectives. In fact, many education experts suggest that school districts should follow a pattern of alternating “visionaries” with “peacemakers.” Having followed the controversial Benjamin, who left on charged terms, Wise has been a peacemaker. Now, the thinking goes, it may be time for a visionary.
That, however, will cost money. In fact, a thorough nationwide search for a director could cost nearly $200,000. With the school system doing everything but shaking the teacher’s lounge couch for extra funds, a financial gift would be, to say the least, warmly welcomed.
“I think that would be great,” says David Kleinfelter, who has served on both the Metro Council and school board. “One of the impediments to doing a nationwide search would be the cost.”
Longtime school board member Ed Kindall says he thinks the board will do a nationwide search anyway, rather than just interview candidates from within. He does have one concern, however, about any possible assistance from the Frist Foundation. “The concern I have is that any selection we make should be totally independent.”
Roberts, who stresses that the Foundation has not yet made a formal commitment, says that its support would be “strictly financial.” He does note, however, that he would appreciate a genuine nationwide canvass in exchange for bankrolling the search. “We’re not going to lobby for it, but my personal opinion is that this is a very vital position in the whole community,” he says. “I think the position is so important we should look for the best we can get wherever they may be. I think it would be an expensive process.”
Of course, if Metro officials go to the trouble of conducting a nationwide search, they should be prepared to boost the position’s salary. Currently, in a system of nearly 70,000 students, the Metro school director earns $113,092more money than Mayor Bill Purcell takes home, but less than what other school chiefs earn in comparable cities. For example, the Knoxville school superintendent earns more than $135,000 in a school system with 52,000 students; the one in Memphis brings home around $232,000 with 88,000 students. Even neighboring Williamson County, which is also looking for a new school chief, pays about $100,000in a school system with only 20,000 students.
“We’ve known and said for a long time that Bill Wise is one of the best bargains this city has ever had,” says school board member Dave Shearon. “But now to get the person we want and need we’re going to have to significantly increase the salary.”
Shearon notes that for now, however, the school system should concentrate on finding the best slate of prospective directors. “I would not want to be artificially limited to citizens who are just in the system,” he says. “I think we should go out and look for the best candidate.”
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