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BOE candidates discuss superintendent's qualifications, contract

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Although Superintendent John Thompson is willing to lead Clayton County's schools as long as he is wanted, candidates for the school board's vacant District 9 seat talked about hiring a new school chief on Saturday at a candidates forum hosted by the Pinecrest Forest Homeowners Association.

The seat will be filled through a Nov. 4, special election. If no runoff is needed, the winner will take office immediately and serve the remaining two years of former board member Sandra Scott's unexpired term. Gov. Sonny Perdue removed Scott, and three other board members, from office in August for alleged unethical behavior and violations of the state's Open Meetings Act.

While the school system is working to regain its accreditation, one of the first issues the new District 9 representative will have to deal with involves the superintendent. Thompson's contract is set to expire on June 30, 2009, and the school board will decide whether the superintendent should be kept for an additional period of time, or if a new school chief should be sought.

What qualifications should a potential superintendent have ended up being the first question posed to the candidates at Saturday's forum.

"Throughout the nation, superintendents usually last only two or three years ... So, there is a good chance that, sometime in the next four years, you may have to hire a new superintendent," said Richard Davies, a member of the Morrow-based homeowners association, as he posed the question to the candidates.

Candidates Charlton Bivins, Irene Lewis, James Searcy, and Toney Walker attended the forum. Ernest L. Davidson is also a candidate for the seat, but he did not attend the forum.

The candidates said the next superintendent -- If Thompson's services are not retained next year -- should posess what Lewis called "the three C's": Character; Competency, and Common sense.

The other candidates suggested similar qualities for a potential leader of the school system. "I would like to get someone who has a proven track record," said Walker, who also advocated a year-and-a-half-long interview process. "He or she should be someone who has previously led a school system with a similar student population and budget."

Searcy said the ideal superintendent would be familiar with the technology, such as the digital classrooms, used in Clayton County schools.

Bivins said a new superintendent should be a "situational leader" who can adapt to various situations. "That person would have to be creative in how he or she approaches education," said Bivins.

Bivins also said a superintendent should understand he or she "reports to the board," foreshadowing answers from Lewis and Searcy to the next question dealing with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) mandates for improving the district and the school board.

"One of the mandates was to hire a permanent superintendent, however the board hired a corrective superintendent and gave him a lot of power," said Lewis, who then pulled out a copy of the SACS report and explained she carries it around with her. "We went into this [in August] unable to meet two mandates."

Searcy said he would like to see a copy of Thompson's original contract, which the board approved in April, and compare it to a traditional superintendent's contract, so "we can understand what happened." The board has since amended the contract to remove the phrase "corrective action" from Thompson's title, and strip him of any "unusual powers" which gave SACS officials cause for concern.

Searcy also called the validity of Thompson's contract into a question because of its content and the way it was approved. The powers granted to Thompson exceeded board policy, state law and SACS standards. Also, the board had to vote on the contract twice because the meeting where it was originally approved was not a legally called gathering.

"If we had a contract that was not legal, then isn't it invalid?" asked Searcy.

The candidates were also asked about issues, ranging from portable classrooms, to the school system's $612 million budget, student discipline, supporting teachers, and the duties of a board chairperson.

When the candidates were asked what stake they had in running for a school board seat, Bivins and Lewis said it was because they have children in the school system and want to help improve their community; Searcy said it is because he is a [part-time] realtor who is watching home values drop, and Walker said he "believes in Clayton County" and is "hot" about the accreditation loss.