Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hearts and minds

Last night's 8-1 vote by the Knox County school board to extend Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre's contract may prove to be a pyrrhic victory.

It also may be the best argument for a return to an elected superintendent, a move -- to be blunt with you -- I have long feared.

McIntyre is good-hearted, deeply intelligent, tremendously talented. He's nowhere near being Adolf Hitler, contrary to a widely-held perception.

But he has lost the hearts and minds of the rank and file, to coin a phrase. And we all know where that left President Lyndon Baines Johnson during the Vietnam War.

I don't see how McIntyre wins them back.

Calling in the beautiful people, establishment types, sycophantic administrators and tone-deaf butt kissers to sing the good doctor's praises last night -- all of whom have been noticeably absent up 'til now -- is obvious, telling, cynical, pathetic.

The Shopper-News asked anyone and everyone to call us beginning way back in September about the good, the bad and the ugly in Knox County Schools. Please make special note of the word "good."

Do you know how many "good" calls we received? Exactly two, neither of which came from an educator. The "bad" and "ugly" responses reached three digits.

If you missed the resulting columns, send me a note and I'll send them to you. The teachers clearly articulated their arguments. As Carolyn Greenwood said at the meeting, those who said McIntyre deserved an extended contract did not. Most never even attempted anything other than banal cliches.

Board chair Lynne Fugate said, "When a coach asks for a contract extension and if you don't (grant it), that speaks volumes."

It also speaks volumes when you do. (Paging Phil Fulmer and Mike Hamilton.)

At least one school board member came close to scolding the teachers as rabble-rousing complainers. That's tin-eared at best and insulting at worst. The vast majority of the teachers with whom Sandra Clark, Betty Bean and I corresponded are top-notch educators, recent teachers of the year, young and old(er), TEAM 4s and 5s.

My jaw literally dropped when Rebekah Carson, a recent high school grad and daughter of school board member Karen Carson, actually said, "Teachers need to be focusing on students instead of griping."

Focusing on students is the reason most of those red-shirted educators have left school in tears day after day and decided to pack recent school board meetings to stand athwart history, yelling "stop!"

Board member Pam Trainor bizarrely said the discussion "is not about Jim McIntyre, it's about the school system." Then she said McIntyre "is the right man for the job."

McIntyre has succeeded on a host of things -- opening the STEM Academy, focusing laser-like on academics and rigor, creating Community Schools, planning to open a Career and Technical Education high school. At least one of his failures -- delaying high school start time -- was an excellent idea. I supported his advocacy for more money for needed school technology last year so much that I broke several rules of journalistic ethics by voicing my opinion at County Commission and singing a John Denver song. (Don't ask.)

But he has failed at a leader's most important and precious responsibility: taking care of the troops in the trenches.

Several principals were reassigned for reasons that remain murky. I have no idea, for example, how former Central High and Powell High principal Ken Dunlap strengthens his leadership skills under a principal with one year under her belt.

Deciding to blow up Vine Middle before holding a just-for-show public meeting was inexcusable. Learning your principal has been reassigned via a robocall, or a week before school begins, or at the supermarket, is super awful, potentially crushing to youngsters who form deep, important, life-altering bonds with them. My elementary school principal is like a second father.

Some of this is perception. A sliver of it is ax grinding. Some of it is happening because McIntyre isn't being well served by some of his high-ranking subordinates. The majority of it is happening because of teachers who love their jobs and their kids and reached a breaking point, refusing to stay silent, consequences be damned.

But some of it is the cold, plain fact that McIntyre isn't a back-slapping hail-fellow-well-met. With Shakespearean irony, that's his greatest strength and biggest weakness.

McIntyre is far and away the most purely intelligent superintendent to ever lead the county school system. He can summarize and regurgitate an argument quicker and better than anyone I have ever known. He has shown an enthusiastic willingness to step out of the proverbial box. He has brought ideas to Knox County that a home-grown product might not have.

But we are a culture used to and comfortable with a glad-handing superintendent in the best sense of the phrase. The most successful ones -- Mildred Doyle, Earl Hoffmeister and Allen Morgan -- were the very definition of it.

Wait, wait, you say. Politics has no business in education. Anyone who thinks politics disappeared with elected superintendents is either delusional or on dope.

Elected superintendents also at least have a constituency and can claim mandates driven by more than five people.

But times have changed since the good ol' days, you say. They have indeed.

Effective leadership traits haven't. Common sense, communication skills, street smarts, and letting a teacher teach and giving principals true autonomy (when deserved) can take a person far and wide. Go ask Hoff and Morgan.

McIntyre says that his hands are tied by state and federal reform mandates. That won't wash. He was front and center advocating for them, both in Nashville and before Congress.

I don't want Jim McIntyre to fail. If he does, we all do. Giving him time to do his best with what remains on his current contract would have been responsible, equitable, sensible, fair.

Extending his contract now is curious, questionable and could be calamitous for any of the "aye" votes should they run for re-election. I'll also be interested to see how many people retire from or leave the school system in December and May.

Good luck, Jim. I'm sincere as I have ever been when I say that I'm rooting for you.

If you win back hearts and minds, I'll be the first in line to shake your hand, declare you a genius and invite you over to watch the Red Sox.

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Blogger hmiddleb13 said...

I think we now need to look at our School Board as well. Teachers are not done raising their voices. It needs to be recognized that they are the ones that actually KNOW what's BEST for the children.

7:45 PM  

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