Steve Smith’s education career came full circle when he was sworn in as the Bibb County school system’s interim superintendent nearly 19 months ago.
Smith grew up attending Bibb County schools and, later, was a teacher, coach and principal in Macon before taking superintendent jobs in Pulaski and Lowndes counties, then teaching in college.
When the school board hired him last year, he said he would work through the 2013-2014 school year. In time, though, he agreed to stay on till Christmas break as the school board labored to hire a new superintendent.
Before leaving his post Friday, Smith sat down for a wide-ranging interview this week. He discussed the challenges the system faced, from low morale across the district when he arrived to lagging student achievement, and he also addressed hot-button topics such as the system’s purchase of the Promise Center as well as school board governance.
Here are excerpts of the interview, which have been edited for space. You can find audio of the 90-minute session at macon.com.
Q: What were the immediate challenges and problems you faced when you arrived?
A: (The board) didn’t have a five-year facilities plan, and they had already asked for an extension.... They felt like that they needed to make significant progress over the course of the next 2 1/2 years because we were at a midpoint of the (education sales tax) program with very few projects completed. ... The second area that they identified to me was the area of technology, that they had not upgraded the technology in many years. And they felt like the teachers had reached a point where they were very frustrated, the students were frustrated, and they felt like we needed to bring technology up to the 21st century. ... Other things that they mentioned, which I totally agree with, was that they said morale was at an all-time low in the school system and they felt like we needed to go through a period of healing.
Q: What were your goals, knowing that your time here would be short?
A: The first thing I felt like we needed to do was assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current situation, so I brought in some outside consultants ... at no cost to do an appraisal of the system and tell us where we were and what their thoughts were about what we needed to do for the future. ... The very first thing I realized (is that) I did not have the personnel in place to be able to do the job that needed to be done over the course of what I thought would be six to 12 months initially. ... Heard was one of the oldest elementary schools that we had, and that community has long deserved a new elementary school. So I immediately put the progress back on track. ... And I think the fact that we brought Jason (Daniel) on board and we already had an architect who was willing to work to move things forward, ... it just really enabled us to move at breakneck speed to get the job done.
Q: In what areas of the school system is the most still undone?
A: I’m not pleased with the academic gains that we’ve had thus far, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we were in a fact-finding mission.We didn’t know where we were, and we were trying to figure out where we are in order to determine where do we go for the future. That’s what we’ve been able to do, so I am pleased that there are pockets throughout the system that have made tremendous progress in the area of curriculum and instruction and the area of school improvement, but it’s a work in progress. We still have a lot more to do.
Another area that I’m somewhat concerned with is that the board is working better than when I arrived as a governance team, but we’re not where we need to be. We still have a lot of improvement in that area. The board and the superintendent basically ought to be fairly invisible in the system. They ought not generate a whole lot of attention in a school system, but yet in our system over the past and even in the present, we generate a lot of attention, and I think that’s a sign that we need to work together as a team. I think the board needs to realize that it’s unlikely that you’re going to get eight people ..., and let me just say that about the eight. I’m a strong believer that we need to have an uneven number of our board members, and I think that seven is the most desirable number for us, simply because we’re a large, urban community. And I think you need at least seven representatives, but I’ve always opposed having an even-numbered board.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about the school system?
A: The biggest misconception about the school system is that we don’t have quality teachers or quality leaders. We’ve got some of the most outstanding teachers in the school system that we’ve ever had. We’ve always had good teachers in this system, and we have just as many good teachers today as we had 20 years ago. We have just as many good leaders. I’m very impressed with the leadership pool that we have. ... I really feel like one of the mistakes that the Bibb County school system has done over the years is that they’ve always sought to go outside for their leadership.
Q: Compare your relationships and clashes with board members here to similar relationships at other stops.
A: There’s been one or two board members I think that have been a real challenge for me.Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve had at least one board member that was a challenge, but probably not to the extent of the challenges that I’ve faced here. One thing you have to realize, and I don’t want to discuss that individual at length. I think anybody that reads the paper can tell who that is, but actually the more he talked, the better I sounded. I just kept focused on what the goal was in serving the needs of the students, and that’s what you have to do.
Q: What would you say to critics of the decisions surrounding the sale and repurchase of the Promise Center?
A: Even though I support the philosophy behind what the Promise Center was all about, I would not have been in favor of us selling the building to anyone. I think if we embrace the philosophy behind it, then we should have taken the initiative to use the facility for that purpose ourselves instead of getting someone else involved in it. And I said to the board that we’ll have to really do a thorough job of educating the public on this process. ... .When people come to me and they say, “How can you justify spending $8.5 million on a building that you sold for $220,000?”
What I tell them immediately is that “Well, you fail to realize the $6 (million) or $7 million that was spent on the building to renovate the building to get it to the standard it is today.” They don’t take that into consideration. We’re not buying back exactly what we sold them.
Q: What is the status of the various contracts that were awarded during the Dallemand administration, which are now the subject of a criminal investigation?
A: I’m not sure what the logic was behind the Ncomputing devices (at a cost of nearly $3.8 million), but we have only installed the devices at three schools. And they’re working OK. They’re just not optimal. ... We’ve got 14,500 of those devices that we’re trying to sell. ... In addition to that, we spent $3.2 million on a piece of financial software that came in on a server, but when we opened the server up, there was nothing on the server. There was no software on the server. ... Our major goal there is recover our investment on those two items.
Q: Do you think that money will ever be recovered?
A: I’m sure that we’ll recover somemoney, one way or another. I’m sure that justice will prevail, if crimes have been committed. But I doubt that we’ll ever recover the total investments that we made in those two pieces of software and hardware.
Q: What are the school system’s greatest shortcomings, and what will it take to fix them?
A: I think the shortcomings over the past three years have beenin the area of trust. I think that trust had greatly eroded from the community standpoint -- the trust in the school system, the trust within the school system with the leadership of the school system, the governance team and the superintendent, and the board. I think to some degree that has been restored partially. I think we’re a work in progress. We still have a ways to go. ... We were afraid to confront the brutal facts, ... and the brutal facts are why are our test scores so low, why is our graduation rate low? And you have to find out, and one of the things that we’ve done while I’ve been here, and I’m thankful to the staff for being so receptive to this, we have done some analysis... that we go into the schools and we delve into the issues that the schools are dealing with as to why they are deficient ... and what we need to do to address some of these.”
Q: What would you like the community at large to do to better support the school system, even if they have no personal stake in the system?
A: Every community has a personal stake,whether you have children in the school system or not. Now, if you have children in the school system, you have more of an investment and a personal stake. ... But your property values have a vested interest in the success of our school system because the more successful our school system is, the higher your property values are going to be. So everybody, whether they’re in public school, whether they’re in private school, whether they don’t have anybody in school, period, they have an investment in this community by virtue of owning property in this community. So we need their support, but at the same time, I hope they will hold us accountable.”
Q: What could you have done better? Give yourself a grade in areas you’ve dealt with.
A: I don’t think that you can grade mebecause it wasn’t me. It was us. I think “we” can be graded on the fact that, I think in the area of facilities and technology, we’ve done an outstanding job. But it’s easier to measure those areas, and it’s easier to see the results and the progress that’s been made. In the area of academics, we were a little greater challenged in that area. ... We haven’t had adequate time to adequately address it, but I don’t feel like that my role here was a role on a permanent basis. ... It’s just no limit to what you can do if you work together to accomplish a task. It’s all been about teamwork. I haven’t done anything. We have done everything.”
Q: We’ve struggled through two rounds of searches for a new superintendent. What’s the problem, as you see it?
A: They’re having this difficulty because they’re more concerned with what’s happened in the past than what’s happening in the future. Obviously as a board, they look back on past experience, and when they reflect they say, ‘We can’t make the same mistake again.’ And they’re so concerned about making another mistake similar to what they perceive -- and I perceive as well -- as a mistake, they want to be real careful and cautious about what they’re doing in the future.”
Q: What advice do you have for the next superintendent?
A: I would say utilize the collective wisdom of your team in making decisions. Listen very carefully to what everybody has to say. Everybody is important, regardless of what their position or station in life might be, and everything that they have to say is worth listening to. As far as with the board is concerned, I think you have to have patience, but you have to assist them to move forward into the future with courage. I think that if you can do that, I think the school system is going to be far better off than it ever has been.”
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331. To contact writer Oby Brown, call 744-4396.