Nashville's school board defies mayor in hapless search for new superintendent 

On the day the school board released the names of applicants to become Nashville's new superintendent, Michelle Rhee appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Mayor Karl Dean has made no secret of his admiration for Rhee, the celebrated young chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public schools. Fierce and guileless, she's firing incompetent principals and teachers in a relentless pursuit of reform, and Dean follows her exploits with glee on the Internet. Aides say he dreams of hiring someone like her to shake up Nashville's schools.

Needless to say, the contrast between Rhee and our own candidates didn't go unnoticed last week in the mayor's office.

If Rhee is a rock star of superintendents, then Nashville's applicants are singing off-key karaoke in a motel lounge.

The lusterless field is understandable. The job wouldn't make anyone's list of hot opportunities. Our schools are failing, the mayor's threatening to take over the district and disband the school board, and blacks and whites are at each other's throats over a student rezoning plan.

As one city leader privately notes, "Who the hell would want to come here?"

Not one of the three top applicants is now working as a superintendent in any district.

One, a flamboyant bullshit artist of the highest order—Santiago Wood—is selling real estate in Florida. Another, Doris McEwen, is an education professor in Washington state. Her main experience comes at a district only one-sixth the size of Nashville's.

The third, Jesse Register, is a retired grandfather who spent 10 years as Chattanooga's superintendent. He led reforms that were credited with turning around inner-city schools.

But even his champions admit the old white dude is a little dull, not exactly the dynamic leader we require. He also might be a bit unfamiliar with contemporary thinking. During his interview Saturday, he upset some board members' sensibilities by referring to children who don't speak English as "handicapped."

More knocks on Register: He raised the ire of parents of disabled children in Chattanooga by fighting an autistic child's demands for more services. And he was a reckless spender, according to one Chattanooga school board member.

"He may look good on paper, but I see the results, and I don't like what I see," Rhonda Thurman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "We are $20 million in the hole because of decisions he made while he was here. We built new schools while we were losing enrollment, and he started programs with grant money, and when the grant money ran out we were left holding the bag."

Most observers have politely described all three candidates as underwhelming.

Yet the school board, in its own dysfunctional way, is defiantly getting ready to pull the trigger on this hire. The board interviewed the finalists ad nauseam over the weekend, then went into one of its all-too-frequent meltdowns of indecision.

Believe it or not, they pretended they were on Survivor, writing secret ballots to see who they wanted to "vote off the island."

Board members were happy to keep their votes secret. One, Hermitage insurance salesman Steve Glover, chortled at the thought. "The media will probably dust these for fingerprints," he said.

There are a couple of problems here: First, the board was blatantly violating the state's Open Meetings Act, which states "no secret votes, or secret ballots, or secret roll calls shall be allowed." (Board chair David Fox has promised not to do it again.)

Second, nothing was accomplished. That's because five of the nine members refused to vote anyone off. The three candidates were invited back for more of the same within the next week.

Wood's survival is crazy. He was forced out as superintendent in Fresno, Calif., after apparently pissing off most of the city.

During his wonderful four-year tenure, high school students walked out to protest overcrowded classrooms, lack of textbooks and computers, not enough desks and infestations of cockroaches and rats. A state audit revealed $35 million in flawed documentation tied to construction contracts. And the city was outraged when Wood took a $25,000 raise in his compensation as the district struggled with a fourth straight year of budget cuts.

Bet you won't find any of that on his résumé. In fact, on his Nashville application he said he left Fresno because his wife got a job in Florida. He needed "a change of pace."

To leave Fresno, Wood took a nearly $500,000 buyout. As part of the deal, board members agreed not to speak ill of him.

"...The only positive statement I can make is that he always dressed nice," former board member Manual Nunez said when Wood applied for a suburban Atlanta post this year.

Wood told Nashville's board he was proud of the "You Make a Difference" pens he handed out in Fresno. He touted a brochure as another major success; it took 115 people a year to produce it. Some board members said they were impressed because his lip trembled while he discussed his passion for children.

"Unbelievable," says a source familiar with the mayor's thinking. "The school board never ceases to amaze. We need the next Michelle Rhee. We need a bold and courageous superintendent. How is hiring one of these people going to change the school system for the better?"

Dean is asking the board not to hire anyone—at least not until next summer when we'll learn if the district has once again failed student achievement standards. If schools fail for the sixth straight year, the state Education Department could disband the board and put someone else—most likely Dean—in charge. The state already controls spending and hiring, and last summer sacked or demoted one-third of Metro's high school principals who had languished in their jobs under the board's bold leadership.

Despite all this, the board is talking about giving a three- or four-year contract to the new superintendent. Pay hasn't been decided yet, but the last director—the ousted Pedro Garcia—made $218,000 a year. If Dean takes control, he'd have to buy out the new superintendent's contract to get rid of him—a galling waste of money at a time of budget cuts and possible layoffs.

School board members are undeterred. They're more worried about losing power. Chairman Fox admits he'd like a new superintendent with the guts to help the board protect its turf.

"He'll be loyal to the school board and recognize that the school board is the boss," Fox said of Register, who he seems to favor.

The coming shit storm doesn't alarm the board. Several members believe the district's problem is merely bad PR.

"I don't think we need someone to come in and change everything," Glover said. "I do think we need someone to recognize our strengths."

Unfortunately for Nashville's children, that's delusional, as test results prove.

Accountability's a bitch, but if anything good can come of the district's failure, it may be a mayoral takeover and the end of our elected school board.

As one aide to the mayor says, "The status quo isn't working very well."

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