Each schools superintendent is different.
Some are flamboyant while others are quiet and practical. Others end up being abrasive to the point where they put other people off.
When I was hired to be the Clayton News Daily’s education reporter nearly six years ago, I had no idea I was going to get the full gamut of superintendent types in a very short period. In the end, however, that is exactly what happened with five superintendents in two years.
Superintendent Barbara Pulliam, who quit in July 2007, was nice but sometimes naive. Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan, who lasted until March 2008, was practical but plagued by the public perception that she was a puppet of the school board.
Corrective Action Superintendent John Thompson, who was around from 2008 until 2009, was known for his flamboyant personality and outfits — he once wore mocha brown leather pants to the opening of a new school. Meanwhile, interim Superintendent Valya Lee, who led the district for three-and-a-half months, had a “No Bull” style and served as the anti-Thompson.
That brings me to Edmond Heatley, who was perhaps the most controversial of the bunch. He now joins the pantheon of former superintendents with news of his resignation.
When I think back on his tenure, I can only say he did not live up to the expectations the public had of him when he was hired in 2009.
When he arrived from California, there was a lot of hope that he would bring stability and prominence to the district. It was just coming off an accreditation crisis which inflicted heavy damage to the district’s reputation.
He won early support from the community when he suspended 1,500 high school students for participating in a mass protest of the district’s new school uniform policy. The community wanted to see more discipline in the schools after all.
The problem is, he never again seemed to match that kind of public relations success.
Teachers in the school system have for years accused him of treating district employees — particularly school principals — as Marine boot camp recruits rather than educators.
When he skipped the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce’s and Clayton County Rotary Club’s annual STAR Student luncheon in 2010 to attend another, non-pressing engagement, his absence was a topic of talk among business and rotary club leaders.
His efforts to make budget cuts in 2010 turned into a war with employees, parents and school board members which dragged out over three months.
Parents were outraged when he announced — just one week before the 2010-2011 school year began — bus service was not going to be provided to students who lived within a mile and a half of the school they attend. Two years later, he recreated that kind of turmoil when he gave parents short notice of plans to shorten one day of every school week this year.
He had to amend the bus plan so students wouldn’t have to cross dangerous roads and the district is now reconsidering how to deal with the shortened school day proposal.
His handling of $9.6 million in federal jobs stimulus money became a confusing mess. At one point, the district was giving the money to teachers as a sort of bonus. Then, the district wanted it back. Then, it became “you can keep the money if you agree to participate in five professional development days.”
His second attempt to cut the district’s budget, in 2011, was just as confusing. At one point, Heatley put out three revisions to his proposed budget-reduction plan in the span of a week.
Meanwhile, community members who wanted more discipline in the schools saw a rash of incidents that could basically be described as “educators behaving badly.”
The rumors and allegations were crazy. One teacher allegedly tried to hire a student to perform a “hit” on another student. Two female teachers allegedly cursed and fought in front of students over who would date a male colleague. Another male teacher was accused of touching a middle school student in an inappropriate manner. A principal continued working at her school after her certification was revoked by the state.
Heatley generated resentment among teachers when he proposed taking money out of teachers paychecks by retroactively turning five snow days into furlough days in 2011.
He also recommended three spring furlough days. One of them fell on the day of graduation ceremonies for four county high schools. His own daughter was graduating from one of those schools. The district quickly rescheduled that furlough day.
Then came the much gossiped about allegations, of personal indiscretions. Reporters began looking into the allegations which prompted Heatley — surrounded by throngs of elected officials from across the county — to argue with reporters during a press conference. He blasted reporters for looking into the allegations.
The accusations persisted for months afterward, however.
That is what I remember about Heatley’s tenure. Student test scores improved in certain areas, such as writing, but science and social studies scores have remained pitiful. The number of schools meeting federal Adequate Yearly Progress mandates didn’t improve.
It’s a tenure filled with unfulfilled hopes. It’s a tenure mired in controversy and dissension among educators and the public.
For months, I firmly believed this year’s school board elections would turn into a public referendum on Heatley’s leadership, just as the 2008 board elections turned into an attack on Thompson’s leadership. The majority of the school board has more often than not supported Heatley’s initiatives to the point where they have sometimes bordered on becoming a rubber stamp board.
What impact his tenure will have on the elections now that he has quit remains to be seen.
The school board now faces the daunting task of replacing Heatley. First, and foremost, that means who will they pluck from inside the district to be the interim superintendent.
The district saw an exodus of some of its best and brightest leaders under Heatley’s leadership. Several who retired continue to confide in me that they left because they’d had enough of him and the uncertainty he generated.
As I think about who’s left, not too many potential interim superintendents come to mind. I can only think of Deputy Superintendent Stefanie Phillips, Area 2 Superintendent Anthony Smith and Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson.
In order to mend the district’s relationship with the community, the district might have to consider someone from outside Heatley’s inner circle. That would eliminate Phillips, who was also Heatley’s deputy superintendent in California and may follow him to his new job anyway.
Smith is an uncertain choice. He’s been in the district for several years, so he should know the system well. However, the issue of how close he is with Heatley, with whom he frequently made military jokes, will matter.
Jackson, whose wife is a principal in the district, might be the most popular option among district employees and he’s involved in community organizations such as the uber-connected Arts Clayton. That is a plus. The question is, however, whether he would be willing to take it.
Any one who fills the superintendent’s position in Clayton County — even on an interim basis — will face an uphill battle to repair a strained relationship with the public.
Curt Yeomans covers government for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 247 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.