Bibb County school Superintendent Sharon Patterson sat at her desk Tuesday eating Jelly Bellies from a big canister while well-wishers popped in to bid her farewell.
After she leaves the job Feb. 26, she said she plans to remain in Macon.
Patterson, the county’s first female superintendent, said she asked the school board about two weeks ago to consider a settlement to end her superintendent’s contract 17 months early. A state ethics complaint against her and two assistants, she said, had created too much turmoil.
Patterson said she could no longer work in tandem with the school board to operate an effective school system.
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“When they don’t (work as a team), the children will suffer,” Patterson said. “I’m going to be true to my intent — put children first.”
The school board voted 6-2 Monday night to accept the settlement, which will pay Patterson a lump sum of $198,000.
She will finish out the month, but she is being relieved of her duties as superintendent, school board President Gary Bechtel said.
Rumors that Patterson, 65, has applied for vacant superintendent jobs around the state, such as one in the Douglas County school system, are just that, Patterson said.
“No, I have not applied. I plan to retire at the end of the month,” she said. “I plan to stay in Macon.”
Patterson said she will continue to work on a state initiative with the Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association to develop principles for a better public school system.
That initiative will include developing models of what the classroom environment and testing assessments should look like, as well as the role of technology in the classroom.
Patterson said she began feeling a rift with some school board members this past fall. Bechtel said he thinks the breakdown developed after Patterson asked for a 5-percent raise during teacher furloughs a little more than a year ago.
The day before Thanksgiving, Patterson said she was home cooking sweet potatoes when the doorbell rang and she got a certified letter saying that she was under investigation by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
Bechtel and fellow school board member Lynn Farmer had filed an ethics complaint with the Professional Standards Commission, accusing Patterson and two of her top administrators of not reporting two principal misconduct cases to the state agency in a timely manner.
Patterson said she will devote much of her energy in the coming weeks to fighting those complaints.
“Having two people file a complaint with the PSC that is meritless does not bode well to the health of this community,” she said. “I will pursue learning the process so my name can be cleared.”
Bechtel said he didn’t want to respond to Patterson’s characterization of the case, saying simply that the school system will await the findings of the investigation.
And while not all school board members agreed with paying Patterson about nine months’ worth of her remaining contract, he said the majority of the board thought the settlement treated Patterson fairly, and the board got a resolution it could live with.
“We went back and forth a couple of times” negotiating, Bechtel said.
The school board may not have had the necessary five votes to fire Patterson for cause, and Bechtel said to pay the cost of defending the board’s position, as well as Patterson’s position during due process hearings, would have been costlier than the $198,000 settlement. The settlement amount will likely come from the system’s general reserve fund, he said.
On Thursday, the board plans to appoint a short-term, interim superintendent, which likely will be Deputy Superintendent Sylvia McGee, since she is next in line.
Bechtel said that person would lead the school system until the end of the school year. There also will be a search for a long-term interim superintendent to lead the district another 12 to 18 months while a national superintendent search is conducted.
“We wouldn’t be in any hurry. We want to be transparent and gather community input and build a model of what strengths and skills we want” for the national search firm to look for in a superintendent, Bechtel said. “The performance of our schools will be paramount. We need to go after someone who is going to put focus on achievement among the underprivileged and African-American student population ... since those are areas that are consistently underperforming.”
A receptionist at the school system’s central office described the mood there Tuesday as “somber” while a meeting about after-school programs went on in the room next door.
“We’re still moving forward” said Chris Floore, a Bibb County school system spokesman.
Patterson said she will be, too. She said she remembers driving to Macon from North Carolina about 13 years ago with a television and pots and pans in her car to a furnished apartment in north Macon for her new job as an assistant superintendent.
“I wanted to move to Georgia because my son was (studying) law at the University of Georgia,” she said. “I didn’t have an assistant superintendent stripe at the time. I came here so I could have that.”
She ended up being appointed superintendent in January 2000. She said that during her tenure, she believes students have been better off than before she came, and that there is more equity from school to school in terms of quality of textbooks and quality of leaders.
“The whole learning environment is different than when I came,” she said.
Architect Gene Dunwody Sr. was among those who stopped in for a short visit Tuesday.
“It’s a tough situation,” Dunwody said, giving Patterson a hug. “I just came to tell you I still love you.”
To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.