Search narrowed to three for top school post

By Greg Gelpi

Area residents will be told tonight whether Clayton County has the chance to have its first woman superintendent and only second black superintendent after a leading contender for the top post dropped out of the running as a finalist.

Those close to the selection process said Gary Norris, a Kansas educator who had strong credentials and support on the board, dropped out after accepting a similar post in Sarasota, Fla. Norris is white.

One board member called Norris' credentials "impressive" as he was selected as one of the top candidates from a field of 41.

Meanwhile, the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the search continued as officials dodged questions on Monday.

Even Barbara Pulliam, an African American superintendent in St. Louis Park, Minn., considered a favorite for the post, refused to answer questions on Monday.

One question residents are likely to ask Pulliam is whether she can make the transition from a 5,000-student district in which she is well liked by the board to the 53,000-student Clayton County School District which has been ripped by name-calling and fighting on the board for much of this year.

Pulliam has been a finalist for a number of jobs in recent years including the Prince George's superintendent post in Maryland's second-largest school district. In each case, she has not been selected.

The top other educators eyed by Clayton officials are believed to be Stanley Pritchard, an assistant superintendent in DeKalb County, and an Hispanic educator from Texas.

If Pritchard made the cut, he is believed to be the only Georgian still in the running. A second DeKalb official, Jim Williams, got only four votes and couldn't get a fifth vote in initial balloting.

None of the current officials in Clayton County made the cut.

The Clayton County Board of Education scheduled a special meeting for 6:30 tonight as required by law to announce the three finalists for the superintendent's job.

Norris, superintendent of the school system in Salina, Kan., has been offered the superintendent's job in Sarasota, Fla. He could not be reached for comment.

Pulliam, meanwhile, was coy about her chances of being the first woman to head Clayton County's school system.

"I don't know that to be the case," Pulliam said. "At this point, there isn't anything I can say to you."

About two-thirds of Clayton County's students are black and there is also a growing Hispanic student population.

The district has never had a Hispanic superintendent.

Along with the three names, the board will also release all of the information that the Georgia School Boards Association collected on the finalists during the search. The board contracted with the GSBA to conduct the national search.

After two previous meetings, the board picked five from the list of 41 applicants to interview. The board interviewed four Friday and Saturday. From those interviews, the board chose the final three.

"It went about as good as you can ask for," board member Bob Livingston said of the interviews, but when asked if he was pleased with the list of finalists replied, "I guess so. I guess so."

He refused to give the names of the finalists and hung up the phone when asked how the public could be sure the board considered diversity during the search.

"I don't have to assure the public of anything," Livingston said.

Livingston said the board has no timeline, but that he hopes to have a superintendent by Jan. 1.

By law, the board must wait at least 14 days after announcing the finalists before hiring a superintendent.

The superintendent's position became open when the board fired Superintendent Dan Colwell in January and named William Chavis interim superintendent. The board later bought out the remainder of Colwell's contract after he hired an attorney to fight his firing. Colwell did not reapply for the top spot.

The board conducted a search for a superintendent, but scrapped the search after outcries from the Clayton County NAACP, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and public.

In that search, board Chairwoman Nedra Ware and her board supporters handpicked Lonnie Edwards for the position, while some board members complained of never seeing a complete list of candidates.

Those close to the current search said that Edwards was one of those who reapplied but could not get the fifth vote to make the finalist list.

SACS, the school system's accrediting agency, placed the school system on probation for the board not following its own policies.

Hiring a superintendent is crucial to the school system being taken off probation, Mark Elgart, the executive director of the SACS Commission on Secondary and Elementary Schools, said.

The system had only made "cosmetic" improvements when a SACS review team visited in October. SACS will return in the spring to lift probation, extend probation or revoke the system's accreditation.

If accreditation is lifted, the system's graduating seniors won't be eligible for the state's Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship program.