CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - The Hamilton County School Board has voted to buy out Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales' contract. The vote was 6-3, with Everett Fairchild, David Testerman, Joe Galloway, Rhonda Thurman, Mike Evatt and Linda Mosley voting in favor of the buyout. Mrs. Mosley made it clear she was only voting for it because Dr. Scales told her he approved of the arrangement. Jeffrey Wilson, Chip Baker and George Ricks voted against the buyout.
Dr. Scales will receive just over $282,000 to leave the school system a year early. That includes a full year's pay, vacation days, and health insurance costs. There are also attorney fees that have yet to be determined.
Dr. Scales told Eyewitness News on May 10 that he would not feel bad about the buyout. He made few comments during Thursday's meeting, and left shortly after the vote with his wife Cynthia and attorney Cameron Hill. Many of those in attendance had come to support Scales, and they stood and applauded as he left the building.
The big question has been, where will the money come from. The School District's financial director Christie Jordan says the money will come from savings due to snow days. The district saved approximately $300,000 in transportation costs on nine days when buses didn't run.
The four Board members who opposed the buyout spent the first hour of the meeting criticizing School Board attorney Scott Bennett, and the the five Board members who supported the plan.
"Anything that happens again like this, I have a right to know what's going on," said George Ricks. He charged that Board members violated the Sunshine Law, and that Bennett violated the attorney's code of ethics by "keeping the rest of us in the dark." Ricks said, "We didn't vote (as a Board) to even start this conversation with Dr. Scales."
Attorney Bennett explained that a vote wasn't necessary. He says it was enough that then-board chairman Everett Fairchild asked Bennett to explore a buy-out plan with Dr. Scales.
"Had Dr. Scales said no, the conversation would have ended," says Bennett.
Rhonda Thurman countered with her recollections of a day in June 2008 "which will live in infamy," she said. She said that an early 4-year renewal of Dr. Scales' contract, which narrowly passed in a surprise vote "was way more in the dark than anything about this." She said Wilson "was behind it," (which he denied), and that a then-Board member who was an attorney (Joe Conner) "drew up the contract, which even the chairman, Kenny Smith didn't know anything about."
The last day for Dr. Scales is June 10th. After about 30 minutes of debate, Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith was chosen interim superintendent. The vote was 5-4, with Fairchild, Thurman, Evatt, Testerman and Galloway voting in favor of Smith.
Smith is a former teacher, coach and principal who has been a central office administrator since 1997. He has 38 years experience in education, 28 in Hamilton County. With most of his education experience in the largely suburban and rural county district prior to the 1997 merger with Chattanooga, he's been criticized by some for a lack of background in the city's urban schools.
Now the Board is faced with the task of finding a long-term replacement. Again, the Board is divided, as some say they should launch a nationwide search and others say "shop locally."
The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce has sent an open letter to the Hamilton County Board of Education encouraging board members to "cast a wide net" in the search for a new superintendent.
"Clearly some like to go out of town to bring in people and quite frankly we don't need other towns' rejects telling us how to run our business," says Mrs. Thurman.
The newly appointed interim superintendent made it clear he's interested in the position for the long haul. Smith said, "I've been the deputy superintendent for 6 years and I'm qualified."
Board member Linda Mosley referred to Smith as "a pig in a poke," saying she had never had a conversation with him about his goals and plans. Chip Baker agreed, saying "We really don't know what we're getting." Rhonda Thurman shook her head and said, "Of course we know what we're getting. He has worked for us in every capacity, and when he was principal, he knew how to run a smooth school. It's when we get somebody from out of town, that's when we don't know what we're getting."
Smith says one of his first priorities will be to meet with Board members and talk about his plans for the School District. Although some observers have feared a renewal of the city-county divide that marred the district after the 1997 merger of Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools, Smith says he doesn't think that will happen.
Three of the five Board members who support Smith (Fairchild, Galloway and Evatt) spent most of their careers in the Chattanooga school district. In the coming weeks, he may need their vocal backing to overcome the "good old boy" label some have attached to him.