As Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” As speculation mounts that we’ll soon be in need of a new superintendent, it’s a good time to tell you the saga of the last superintendent search. It’s a cautionary tale.
The superintendent search was the most arduous and difficult task I dealt with while on the Board. I almost resigned a couple of times due to the ensuing train wreck I was powerless to stop. I always thought reasoned argument amongst board members would win out in the end. I thought facts mattered. Alas, how naive I was.
Let’s start with our search firm Ray and Associates. Some of our board will tell you Ray and Associates did a poor job. I thought they were quite professional and delivered quality candidates that met our requirements. As the BOE reviewed candidates, some of my fellow Board members ruled out candidates that had top-notch credentials and solid records that clearly met the requirements we designed. With each ridiculous objection, the selection criteria morphed into something else. Ray and Associates grew very frustrated because the BOE had them chasing their tail. In our original criteria we wanted a superintendent with communication and media skills, success in a challenged school system, ability to raise student achievement, and capable of removing the bloat from the central office . I was looking for a clean break and preferred that we not choose anyone with ties to DeKalb County.
The day we started the process I was full of anticipation. I had the opportunity to help make a choice that could fix our faltering district. At this point I was unaware of the hidden criteria for picking a superintendent.
We met to study resumes. We spent hours reviewing stacks of applications and resumes. I learned a great deal about my colleagues’ study capabilities. We all isolated ourselves around the room and began to read. We did not have discussions with each other during the entire period. Representatives from Ray and Associates were in the room to answer any questions. I took notes on each candidate. Some Board members seemed to have difficulty staying on task. Attention spans were all over the place. Those who did not take notes had a very difficult time at the end of the process remembering who was who. That is when one of our members asked if we could have pictures of the candidates. I knew then we had a real problem. Ray and Associates provided an “easy” matrix system evaluation so we could see where all our candidates stood as we ranked them in several categories. Two of our members never could really do the matrix system. The consulting firm had to show them how to add their numbers. I think the highest number we had to deal with was seven. You would assume that after awhile everyone would figure it out. These two never did. We probably did these rankings about four times.
After the ranking we came up with six candidates for the top of the list. This would be the group we interviewed. I did not like the list but my top two made the cut. Pam Speaks, Nancy Jester, and I talked after the meeting. We had each ranked the same candidate #1. We found out later that one other member also had this person first on their list. I was feeling optimistic.
The Board’s short list for interviews included Lillie Cox as number one. She was not my first pick, but she was on my list. While she was definitely smart and understood instruction, she seemed too reserved in her first interview. I thought the media and parents would eat her alive. After the interview rounds, she was chosen as one of our final three that would participate in a public forum. I thought she would fail this test. I was totally wrong. She met the parents and media and hit a home run in my estimation. She began to grow on me. I thought another candidate not in the final three was better, but I could go with Dr. Cox. She showed poise and knowledge. She clearly understood education and showed more savvy than I anticipated.
Note that the person four Board members ranked number one was not in the final three.
In a fascinating set of events, the Board offered Dr. Cox a contract. One member sat in stunned silence with head in hands – speechless. The board had six or seven members in favor of offering the contract. I was surprised because, while Dr. Cox wasn’t my first pick, she was a solid professional. Ultimately I was happy the process had worked. In hindsight, I should have known better.
Within the majority that supported Dr. Cox at this point, was a member using their vote to express their anger at another board member. Yes, there are Board members who use their vote in punitive ways or in exchange for something else, rather than what is good for children. It happens all the time. If you watch some of our members during votes, you can see they are making a decision based on how others vote. As the Board was in negotiations with Dr. Cox, leaks hit the media. The two or three “no” votes had their victory. They obstructed the majority of the Board from carrying out its will.
The remaining candidates were not viable to me. Four of us pressured to bring back the candidate that we had ranked number one. It was a hard fight. Two of our board members were vehemently against my number one . At a previous interview, one of these board members sat near the candidate and fell asleep during the questions. This candidate had the best interview I have ever seen. Members that opposed this candidate either purposefully tried to twist the candidate’s record or they weren’t capable of understanding the facts. Either way, the interests of children were not served well. This candidate had a solid record of achievement in the specific areas that have plagued DeKalb for many years.
At this time, you probably recall, Pam, Nancy, and I wrote a letter to express our frustration with the process. Our voices were being diminished by all means available to those on the board that wanted to further their hidden agenda. Nancy and I were summoned to SACS headquarters. We were told it wasn’t good form to announce one’s vote in advance of a meeting. We maintained that it was corrosive and hostile to leak information to thwart the will of the board until some hidden agenda is realized. At that meeting, I felt we were being nudged to “go along to get along”. Nancy and I held our ground because we felt that it was the ethical thing to do. It didn’t occur to me at the time but, the person, three of us viewed as the most qualified, came from a state that accredits its own schools rather than hand over that responsibility to SACS.
This is when Cheryl Atkinson entered the discussion. The entire board had previously reviewed her resume and took a pass. Come to find out Dr. Atkinson served on SACS committees before. I also sensed that SACS turned a fourth board member who had always agreed with me on the ranking of candidates. Soon, this board member began to speak out in favor of hiring Dr. Atkinson.
It is here that I had to acknowledge the hidden agenda in this whole process. The superintendent had to be African-American. Anything that interfered with this agenda was irrelevant. The majority had completely lost focus on the students.
Dr. Atkinson was now rammed through the process and totally faulty arguments were used to dismiss the candidate that four of us had originally chosen as number one. Aspirin became my best friend.
The BOE did not pick the most qualified candidate. I did not say that Dr. Atkinson was unqualified. She simply was not the best candidate we had before us. I talked with some people from Loraine including a board member. The things I was alerted to became a reality: micromanaging, lack of information, and traveling with an entourage and driver.
Even though two of my colleagues supported my thoughts on this opinion we were steamrolled in the vote. We never had a chance. We were pressured by everyone to make the vote unanimous. I could not in good conscience do that. When I was reading my factual comparison on Dr. Atkinson and comparing her record to the one we had rejected three of my colleagues got up and walked out. My commentary was made before the official board vote on confirmation.
We are not in a diverse system. We are in an African-American system in DeKalb. If you are not African-American the welcome sign is not out. The best person must be hired no matter the race. My number one choice was not white.
The stories you have all heard about the five member block vote is true. You cannot turn around a block vote with a single vote.
So I say go ask the six who hired this lady to defend their position. I bet you will be met with silence.
I TOLD YOU SO.