Give Knox a Break

And acknowledge the success of Knox schools

Consultants had public hearings this week to give the public a chance to pick what characteristics a new school superintendent should possess. If one were to countenance this nonsense and participate, I would suggest the top skill set for a new superintendent should be diplomacy. (That lets me out.)

Consultants are looking for a new superintendent because the school board bought out the contract of Charles Lindsey; school system veteran Roy Mullins is running things until a new superintendent is hired next summer.

In the old days, elected superintendents had a political base. They went to the people with a program and people approved it or they elected someone else. Now that the superintendent is a political eunuch, he or she has to curry favor to keep interest groups happy and try and achieve goals. It is an impossible position for an executive—governing by a committee of competing interests. So much for getting politics out of the schools.

The business community has made it clear it intends to play a major role in the hiring of a new school superintendent. Knox Area Chamber Partnership CEO Mike Edwards said at a business leaders' meeting with Gov. Phil Bredesen that public education is the top priority of business leaders. (How terrible is the situation locally? Well, the October unemployment rate in Knox was 3.3 percent, the lowest rate of any county in Tennessee.)

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has his Great Schools Partnership initiative to raise funds and, presumably, have some input on how the funds are spent. A superintendent also needs to be able to work with Knox County Commission—which approves school funding.

Then there's the school board, the ostensible employer of the chief school executive. And the superintendent has to motivate, inspire, and lead 7,000 teachers and administrators who can make or break new programs.

Everyone wants the schools to be better. But let's not begin with the assumption the schools are bad. Among its peers in Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, Knox County is far and away a better school system. Knox County is competitive with much smaller suburban school systems. Knox County has some schools that are very competitive with area systems in Maryville and Oak Ridge.

But like the other metro systems, Knox County has special challenges. How many public housing projects are in Maryville? How many free-lunch eligible kids? How many one-parent homes? How many sets of parents who never graduated from high school? Knox County also gets any child in surrounding counties that needs special education.

It's not that Knox County hasn't been paying attention to test scores and trying to do something about it. The late and legendary Sarah Simpson, in charge of curriculum, was an early advocate of testing and accountability. Her office has continued her vision. We have Project Grad working on graduation rates in the inner city. The school system has taken the drastic step of reconstituting schools, and new people are brought in to change the culture.

But if the law requires Austin-East to have as a goal to graduate 95 percent of its students then, to quote Dickens: "The law is a ass."

The Knoxville establishment and the school board obviously had a problem with Lindsey's leadership and felt a change was needed. Fair enough. But there seems to be an attitude among some influential people that it's time to "clean house" down at the Andrew Johnson building. That's a disturbing idea.

Given Knox County's test scores in apple-to-apple comparisons, someone down at the "AJ" has been doing a good job. Not only should the idea of a major shake-up be re-thought, some consideration should be given to local people for the superintendent's job.

There is something to be said for having a superintendent who knows where to find Gibbs or South-Doyle or Karns, someone who knows the special challenges at Vine and Austin-East, someone who knows school administrators and knows who is doing a good job—and who isn't.

And most of all, someone who cares.