At midterm, Bibb schools’ Smith is far from finished

mstucka@macon.comDecember 7, 2013 

Though Steve Smith is about midway through a one-year stint as interim leader of Bibb County schools, he says there is still a way to go to improve the school system.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said in an hour-long interview with The Telegraph. “... I think we have probably 90 percent of the problems identified. We have worked through a plan to address the problems. But we’re in different phases, depending upon the problem, different phases of implementation.”

Some of those plans will be launched, and even completed, in the next few months. Starting Monday, Smith will present his ideas for a five-year facilities plan that will include school closures and another sales-tax referendum. The board is beginning the process of funding a replacement for Smith and is also launching a new, redirected wave of technology upgrades.

Smith doesn’t think those are the biggest problems.

“I still want to make more inroads into letting teachers know how much we appreciate them and letting them know that along with the students they’re the most important people in the school system because that’s where the most important work takes place ­­-- between the teacher teaching and the student learning,” Smith said.

He put a deputy in charge of finding ways to reduce paperwork that can distract teachers, and he wants to find a way to let teachers take an hour or two off from work so they can take themselves or their children to doctors’ appointments or other visits. They might be able to get as much as four hours a semester off, starting this spring, Smith proposed.

Challenging year

Smith is the school system staff’s third boss this year alone. As 2013 opened, Superintendent Romain Dallemand was in charge, armed with a new three-year contract. His former chief financial officer had just filed a lawsuit claiming he’d been wrongly demoted. In the coming weeks, another lawsuit over Dallemand’s employment contract was filed, and The Telegraph revealed that Dallemand’s commitment to the Macon Promise Neighborhood program far exceeded what the school board had authorized. By the end of February, Dallemand was gone, bought out of his contract. The board selected an acting superintendent, Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, who had to close a gaping budget shortfall. The school board itself struggled for months to pick its own leadership, and the board’s leadership dysfunctions nearly led the school system’s accrediting agency to walk away.

Smith came on board in June. There’s much less open rancor in board meetings, and Smith has said he hopes to remove the black marks from the accreditors’ reports by summer.

Several board members have told The Telegraph they’d love Smith to stay on as the system’s permanent superintendent. He says he’d refuse, having made a promise to his wife.

“My wife has followed me for 38 years, and I feel like I need to follow her the rest of my time. She wants to relocate to St. Simon’s (Island), and I’d like to go with her,” he said. His contract is through June 30.

Asked to grade Smith, board member Lester Miller said, “He’s definitely done an A-plus (job) in my opinion. Stakeholder input he’s considered, he’s increased teacher morale, and we had some turnover, but the people he’s brought in have been spectacular.”

Board member Tom Hudson refused to give Smith a grade but suggested people should look at how “the test scores went up across the board last year” with the work from Dallemand’s administration. As far as Smith, “Well, the jury’s still out. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt,” Hudson said. “There’s some things I’d like him to be doing and some things I’m not pleased with. The final grade will come at the end of his tenure.”

Hudson declined to say what else Smith should be doing.

Board member Lynn Farmer said Smith was doing an excellent job and suggested the next leader should not be dissimilar from Smith.

“I wish he’d stay, but I understand,” Farmer said. “He is really good. He loves the community. He knows how to run a system this size. He supports teachers. He’s a disciplinarian, so he creates a good environment for students to learn and teachers to work. In addition to that, he’s building partnerships in the community, which is what it’s going to take.”

Smith said any talk ought to be about the teachers that make it happen.

“Our employees have a very challenging task before them, and it’s critical that they know how much the board and the school system appreciate them for what they do day in and day out. It’s all about this, right here,” he said, gesturing to a pin on his right lapel with a single word on it -- “attitude. If they have a more positive attitude toward their job, I think they’ll be more effective in the performance of their job.”

A look ahead

“I feel like my role as an interim superintendent is to... develop a plan directed toward correcting deficiencies in the school system,” Smith said. “So when I hand the baton off to my successor, they don’t have to take the time do what I’ve already done. I’m sorry, (What) we’ve done. I’m obviously just a small part of it.”

Some of that work may take years to finish. Though the five-year facilities plan is likely to be voted on by the school board in the next few months, it will also call for a new educational special purpose local option sales tax, Smith said. Those 1-percent sales taxes typically expire after six years. The money would be matched against state funds to build several new schools spread out over time, most of which would likely consolidate smaller, and older, elementary schools. Smith said it was possible that Barden and Burghard elementary schools could merge next year, but he thought changes could be few.

The system also has a structural financial deficit carried over from last year. Smith said the economy isn’t picking up quickly, but it does seem to be improving slowly. He wants to look at efficiency and effectiveness of everything in the school system through new benchmark goals for each department.

Smith said he’d like to restore some teacher training days as well as some of the days cut from the school calendar.

“That’s what my goal is. Whether we can do that from a financial standpoint, we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

The system has other challenges, too, such as getting technology infrastructure working. Smith said things should be working better by the summer. A longer-term challenge is stopping suburbanization to keep people from moving away from Bibb County schools.

“You have to give them a reason to believe in us. And it won’t happen overnight,” said Smith. He said it may take three to five years to rebuild trust in the system.

Though he’s worked as a teacher, principal and superintendent, Smith refused to fill out a report card for himself.

“I’m not going to give myself a grade. I think that the system and the board and the community need to give me a grade. I wouldn’t attempt to grade myself. I guess the best way I could put it is, I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely satisfied with what we do because I feel you can always do a little bit more,” he said.

He continued, “I am very pleased at the reception that the school system and community have given me. I’m also pleased at the degree of teamwork that I have observed from the system and from the community. I see a lot of positive signs on the horizon that now is proving to be a very opportune time for the school system, the community and the home to come together.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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