What a difference a year of good leadership can make. Interim Bibb County school Superintendent Steve Smith’s contract expires June 30. A search is underway for his successor. Smith began June 2, 2013. He’s been superintendent less than 11 months.
Technically, the board of education supervises the superintendent. Practically, as former Superintendent Romain Dallemand showed, it’s possible for a rogue quickly to cause trouble, especially if a BOE majority acquiesces. Dallemand started Jan. 31, 2011, and terminated Feb. 25, 2013. He served barely two years.
Dallemand left the school system jumbled. Teachers were demoralized. Other participants and observers, including many students and parents, were disappointed by, if not scornful of, Dallemand and his minions for having proclaimed themselves miracle workers without ever delivering miracles. Odd initiatives lay in limbo, like Mandarin instruction paid partly by a proxy of China’s ruling party. Local taxpayers woke up to absurd commitments of dubious legality. Parasites scurried for cover when the lights flickered on.
But as fast as Dallemand could lead the system astray, some practical corrections could also deftly be made, even by an interim leader. Smith has helped steady the ship with surprising speed.
On April 17, the board voted unanimously to scale back facilities expansion plans in light of declining enrollments. The April 17 meeting was one in a series during which board members came together on unpleasant questions while balancing student interests, teacher input, community concerns and taxpayer welfare.
Other prominent systemic decisions made under Smith’s watch have been to accommodate teachers and parents more carefully on things like schedule; politely duck the national controversy over Common Core as locally distracting; assemble, at least temporarily, a group of fine administrators to stabilize things administratively; agree to serve as a pass-through for two charter-school start-ups; and deal with other awkward facilities issues including the wildly expensive Promise Center. Smith managed all that without deriding Dallemand and his enablers.
A good example of Smith’s sensible leadership has been on the direction of the Welcome Center, another of Dallemand’s dubious initiatives. Located in the “old Kmart” strip mall in the commercially moribund part of Riverside Drive, roughly equidistant between Pierce Avenue and Spring Street, the Welcome Center is poorly situated to welcome the public. Sealed off to the east by the interstate, far from population centers, the center is unwalkable from almost all neighborhoods in the county. Yet it purports to be a point of entry for those parents and students least well-equipped to navigate the educational bureaucracy.
Smith’s well-grounded suggestion, reflecting the interests of many constituencies, is to redirect registration back to the individual schools, where the parents and kids can kick the tires while registering without having to find and navigate to an inconvenient location they may never again visit. Smith also proposes to redeploy parent advocates and instructors to zones nearer to where the parents and children live.
The Welcome Center facility can then more effectively serve as a spacious, modern, easily visited meeting/training place for teachers outside of their schools. It can also house Human Resources, now awkwardly placed downtown in the Mulberry Street headquarters, which is hard to get into.
Not coincidentally, a new study confirms the long-rumored existence of inflated Welcome Center paychecks. When those inequities are addressed, morale elsewhere will improve.
Dallemand and Smith provide contrasts worth pondering while the board selects the next superintendent. But Dallemand and Smith share a common history. Both swam in a complex set of crosscurrents that are personally dangerous for any individual superintendent here.
Despite an evenly racially balanced Bibb County population overall, about three-quarters of Bibb’s public school students are black, because white students’ families disproportionately find alternatives.
Some African-Americans may feel that blacks should direct Bibb’s schools because Bibb’s students are predominantly black. Some whites may feel that whites should lead, as whites pay most Bibb taxes.
However, since the entire community agrees that we need better educational outcomes overall, let’s together insist on excellent public school leadership, no matter the leaders’ colors. The board’s selection and supervision of the next administration will be important.
David Oedel teaches at Mercer University law school.