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J. Wade Gilley
Joe Sullivan interviews the president of the University of Tennessee

  School Work

Both Knox County Schools and the University of Tennessee are facing big obstacles on the path to excellence. How will their respective new heads deal with these problems? We asked them.

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Charles Lindsey, Knox County school superintendent

Knox County's new school superintendent is wearing a red tie, patterned with blackboards, and a white button-down shirt. The shirt is notable mostly for its bulging breast pockets, which Dr. Charles Lindsey empties haphazardly before sitting down to talk. "I have lists of ideas from every teacher in Knox County," he says with a grin. "Look, one of them is even on a napkin." He carefully unfolds the towelette, covered in red-ink scrawl, and sets it on the edge of his desk.

"I've been up on the roof, out at Halls, trying to figure out why it's been leaking for five years," he continues, taking a seat. "There were stalagmites in there." He probably means stalactites—the ones that hang down instead of pointing up—but it's a forgivable lapse. Lindsey is, after all, a music teacher by background, not a scientist (when he was young, he considered a singing career). More significantly, he is trying to get a grasp on a system of 52,000 students, 80-plus schools, and 8,000 employees.

Charles Lindsey is the first superintendent in the history of Knox County schools to come from outside the county, let alone the state. When the school board hired him in June after a long search, the 55-year-old career educator was heading up Dorchester School District Number 2, a 17,000-student system in Summerville, S.C. He planned to retire there and already had a contract to that effect. But he's not exactly a newcomer to Tennessee. He earned his doctorate at UT through its Chattanooga campus in the 1980s, and then was superintendent of Clarksville/Montgomery County schools from 1990 to 1994. No stranger to educational jargon—he often refers to himself as a "change agent" and talks about being "internationally competitive" so much that he blurs the phrase into one long word—he is nonetheless straightforward and disarmingly relaxed in conversation.

His first month on the job has already brought its share of turmoil. He vetoed a new dress code at Gibbs High School on legal grounds, and he's currently trying to sort out controversy over escalating construction costs for a baseball field at Karns High School and a field house at Gibbs. Meanwhile, he faces the challenge of getting both the trust and respect of subordinates who, in many cases, had favored the appointment of Assistant Superintendent Roy Mullins to the post. And then there are all those students and parents...

The following is an abbreviated transcript of an interview with Lindsey on Aug. 4, eight days before the start of the school year.

MP: You talk about "international competitiveness," but what exactly do you mean? How do you know if you are?

Lindsey: There's some basic things you're going to have to look at. My real interest this year is to build a template: What is it? What are the test scores? Our test scores are very good, but how do they stack up against an international community? For instance, I would think an internationally competitive school district would be certified or accredited with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. We have high school certification, but we don't have K-12. That's something that you have to say. Every school district I've been part of, we've done that, as a basic. And that's quite an interesting discussion, what it does to a school district. I would assume that an internationally competitive school district would be identifying children at birth, to start a dialogue with them and their parents about what they can do to get their child ready for school—visiting the school, having a "class meeting" with all of the children that are six months old at the school, and start this dialogue. To pull that off, I think that can be done with a minimum of expense, but by the time that child gets to school, they've already been at school, they've already been at the playground, they've already eaten in the lunchroom, they already know who their kindergarten teacher are, they've had packets all year long all the way from music to art to P.E. tapping into what we know about research in those areas, reading skills, listening skills—so by the time they get to school, this is not a new experience, it's just a transition to going to full-time school. I would assume that an internationally competitive school district would have an international baccalaureate program. There is not an international baccalaureate program in the state of Tennessee last time I checked, six months ago.

MP: When you talk about resources, you always come back to basic funding issues. I'm sure you're familiar with Knox County and Tennessee's funding structure. It's almost set up to guarantee this kind of annual tension and sometimes real adversity between the school system and County Commission. How are you going to deal with that?

Lindsey: I think probably there's not one answer. There's a potpourri of answers, slivers of answers that address it. You most certainly are going to have to go and have a year-long dialogue with County Commission. I think you're going to have to have some very intense dialogue with chambers [of commerce], the leadership of our movers and shakers, foundations, all of that. I suspect that in the end—whether it happens or not—you most certainly need to have a discussion that says, for the sake of argument, right now we're running about $4,800 [a year] per child, let's just say that to pull this off and do it right by the children, all the experiences that are necessary to accomplish such an ambitious goal, that it's $5,800, a thousand dollars more per child. I think you're going to have to go to the community, understanding all the pieces of this and whatever is lacking, and really talk to the community as whole, 'Is this something that you want?' Have a referendum and do that right and say this is what we're going to have to do to accomplish it.

...One of the things that you'll see in the 12-month agenda is to register to vote all school employees. And I would assume I could always get my wife or significant other to go with me to vote. And I think as a teacher I can probably influence five people [to vote]. ....I don't think you can do that every time you turn around, but a big [issue], something that's important to changes, then I think you can at least have that discussion. Whether that happens or not, I think that's an avenue that has at least been done in other places. It most certainly is a political campaign.

MP: It seems like one obvious obstacle for you at the outset is that you're an outsider coming in to run a system that's always been run by insiders. There's some lingering resentment various places in the community about Roy Mullins or somebody who they've known for years not getting the position. Especially within the system, how are you working to gain the trust and respect of people who work for you?

Lindsey: I would preface it I guess with, this makes my fourth tenure as far doing this and understanding the dynamics of what happens when you are a change agent, and that has been my career. I find that after it's all said and done that educators love children. We might fuss a little bit, we might have some emotions, but in the end after it's all said and done, school starts. Those dedicated folks who love children jump into the harness and we do what's best for children day in and day out. We have been given budgets that weren't supposed to work, but we've always made it work.

So that's not a concern. Roy has taken me under his wing and has done everything I know beyond the call of duty to make sure I'm successful. And it goes back to the point I just made—he is an educator at heart. None of our folks are ever going to stand in the way of children learning, they're not going to tolerate children being hurt. That's what I find in every school district I've gone to. There's always some anxiety with someone coming in, the rumors most certainly follow you, but in the end we're here for children.

MP: You haven't made any substantial changes within Central Office administration, right?

Lindsey: Yeah. There's a lot of folks who want to see those kinds of things happen immediately because of perceptions. I have always tried to live through a school district for a year. There are some things that I do differently because I'm who I am, as far as training of people, but I do not come into a school district and all of a sudden start tearing it apart. I like to live in a school district for a year and then if changes are necessary, make those changes.

As I said to Hallerin Hill, let me tell you the tale of two cities. One is Clarksville/Montgomery County, where the charge was we've got substantial administrative problems, we're top-heavy and so forth. The charge of the board was, we want to see this cleaned up. After a year, we were top-heavy, we made major changes. At the end of four and a half years, out of the 22 principals, only three or four of the original principals were left. Not all of that was termination, some of it was a graying of the principalship, but that was a tremendous, significant change. We did pare the district office down significantly.

Went to Summerville, Dorchester 2, the same charge, same suspicion, same concern about top-heaviness. Got into it and found out that the district was one of the most efficiently run operations in the state. Out of the 91 school districts in the state at that time, we were [number] 91 as far as the cost per child on administration. It was $86 to $88 per child, which went all the way up to $600 per child in some school districts. And I guess that's what I'm interested in. We may find out that this district [Knox County], all of that suspicion, all of that concern, we may be one of the best-run school districts.

MP: This problem of construction costs seems to keep coming up. The Public Building Authority and Kaatz-Binkley came in a couple years ago to try to get a handle on it, but it keeps coming back again and again, and it's one of the major issues with County Commission. How are you approaching that?

Lindsey: In all of the county commissions I've worked—Clarksville has 21 commissioners, in Summerville we had a similar process that involved seven commissioners, there's 19 here—any time you start building and you're in a building program, and every year I've been a superintendent I've built one, two, or three schools per year, there's always a magnifying glass that goes over cost. There's always an issue of cost. For me, in those discussions, it's the same wording, the same issues, the same conversation, it's just the faces change. It's most certainly a legitimate issue. That is the charge that elected officials have, to scrutinize those, try to get the best building that you can.

...But on paper, PBA really looks like, technically and theoretically, the way you ought to go about building a school. Because you cut through all of the red tape and you can technically speed that process up. At one point, I understand that every time the school district tried to build a school, tried to do a project, it was never funded, and we started struggling. And all of a sudden PBA steps up to the plate, commissioners agree, boards agree, and we have a process and delivery system and every time we have a project, it gets funded. It's been a working relationship. Now we are hung up on a ball field and a field house that are not large projects.

So my emphasis has been, okay, we've got spilled milk, I'm in the middle of this, let's get it off the plate, here's the way to do it, and now let's go to Brickey [Elementary School], and use it as a model to get this back on track. I am extremely impressed with Vernon Patterson [PBA's new head of school construction]. He has built schools, he has school experience, he's worked with boards, and my conversations about how to build a school and his conversations about how to build a school are very, very close. ...So I'm really pleading with County Commission and the board, because there's some hard feelings on both sides of that, to say give Vernon and I a chance to build a school and let's see if we can make this work.

MP: Probably the most common complaint that I have heard about Knox County is that it's unresponsive to parents, that when parents have a particular problem with their child in school or have some broader questions about the educational or curriculum approach, they tend to be shut out. There's an attitude of, 'We're the professionals, let us do the educating.' How do you get beyond that so that parents feel like they can actually be involved in their children's education in a way that goes beyond fundraising?

Lindsey: Let me put it this way—when I talk to parents in one community, they can't say enough good about the school. It's friendly, they want to be there, think the teachers are wonderful, the principal's wonderful, they feel welcome. And then you find isolated instances of, 'I don't feel welcome in school,' the points you just made. So I think it's isolated, I think it's based upon community schools. One of the things you'll find in my interest in an internationally competitive school district is if that's the case, if you really have that, then I would assume that schools would be the friendliest places in town. So that is something I think we're all going to work on, we're going to talk about. When a parent comes to school, how are they greeted? Is the office set up to be barriers to parents? Those are the kinds of things that are fairly easy to get at. ...You know and I know that you walk into a school, in five minutes there's an aura that's in that school that tells you immediately, 'Boy, this is a place that I want to be in, I know that I'm welcome here,' or, 'Hey, I've got to walk down the hall, and I've got to do this, and I feel funny when I'm there, I don't feel welcome.'

...There's some things you can do all the way from having early morning principal's coffees with the community to talking to the community about, 'We do have to be careful, we have to have safe schools, we have to identify folks, and it's not to hold you at arm's length, it is to protect your children.' I think that's also inherent to the size of the school district. I know the school district in Catoosa County, which is about seven or eight thousand, was much easier to do those kinds of things as opposed to Clarksville/Montgomery County as opposed to the size of the school district we have here. ...The bottom line is, if it's perceived that way, you've got to treat it as if it's real, whether it's real or not.

MP: School administrations as a general rule have a reputation for being one of the most insular and defensive of all bureaucracies, which are pretty insular and defensive to start with. There's this tendency, whether you're being challenged by a parent or a county commissioner or the media, to go into a siege mentality. Is that a concern for you? How should you react when somebody challenges you or raises a question?

Lindsey: It depends on what it is. I think you have to listen, you have to understand that we're a service organization, that our commodity is really not a commodity, it's the most precious thing that parents have to offer and they send them to us every day to take care of. When it comes down to legal kinds of things, many times you have to say, 'I'm sorry, we can't discuss that, it's in litigation.' And you have folks that say, 'Okay, but I want to talk to the press and I want to play my side out,' and you're sitting over here, you can't play your side out because you're going to hurt children and call names and so forth. I think it's something you have to work on; it has more to do with the culture of the police department, the culture of the education group, the culture of the press.

...Most organizations when they're attacked will start thinking in terms of defense mechanisms and strategies, and we're not unlike that. I think probably the better thing you can do, and this is the part that takes a while, is talking to the folks that deal with the press, deal with parents day in and day out, and try to talk about strategies in which you can be friendly, you can be informative, but also protect children that are in our trust. And that's probably the one that takes the longest of anything out there.

MP: You're opposed to both vouchers and charter schools. Why?

Lindsey: Well, I guess it goes back to believing that public education is the only delivery system that accepts the child at the doorstep as he is—whatever he's wearing, whatever his intellectual ability is. The first kindergarten child that shows up knows how to read, knows how to spell, can add and subtract, and knows the chemistry periodic table. And the next child that steps up to the doorstep doesn't know their name, colors, shapes, can't hold a pair of scissors, doesn't know how to listen, is a discipline problem, attendance problem, but yet they are welcomed in that door. And then it becomes our charge to try to make a difference.

I'm not opposed to private schools or denominational schools or home schools. In fact, I tend to support a diversity that a child can receive. There are some children that it is really very best for them. If you want your child to go to church school and be indoctrinated with the church's beliefs...then that is appropriate. But I have a problem when folks say, we will do the vouchers or we will do the charter schools—the ones that I've seen drawn, I have not seen the legislation in Tennessee of how those are drawn—we want to pick and choose: we'll take this student, but we don't want this special ed. child that has a wheelchair. Or this 20-year-old that is handicapped and we have to change their diapers. I have a problem with the exclusion.

Now, if you want to talk to me about a voucher system that says, this is a private school, we will take the free and reduced-rate [lunch] children, we will take the handicapped children, we will take a cross-section, then I might be interested in having a dialogue with you. But every one that I've talked to is, 'No, I don't want those, now. You keep those.'

MP: How familiar have you become with the magnet programs here, and what do you foresee as their future?

Lindsey: I'm still bringing myself up to speed with this particular concept of magnets. I've done magnet schools, schools of the arts, science and math. As I understand it, the intent was to draw more private [school] folks back into the school district, more individuals back into the city schools, and to provide some programs that really make a difference to the inner-city child. I think all of those are very worthy. As any program, your first year is not going to be as successful as your second year.

...I'm hoping that as we get into that and really put the resources behind the schools and try and make them accomplish what they were intended to, that we will have some more and more individuals that really utilize that. They're some of the finest buildings, a couple of the arts schools, that I've seen in a long time—some of the best built buildings, the best programs and equipment that I've seen in any facility. I would want my child to attend Austin-East or Vine school. But it takes a while for that. It's something you can't say, okay we did this this year and it wasn't quite a success. You have to give them four or five years, you have to build a feeder system and so forth.

...The school of the arts that we had in Summerville, we piloted a year-round school concept on a small basis to see what would happen. We were having discussions as I was leaving about taking that calendar and expanding it to all the schools. So the magnet school...allows you to pilot some programs on a small basis and expand it to the rest of your school district.

MP: You've talked about wanting to set up a countywide dress code. Why?

Lindsey: The way we were headed, the potential of having 13 different dress codes at 13 different high schools, 15 different dress codes at middle schools, without having a systemwide dress policy, seems to me that puts you at great risk when you get into legal kinds of things. Because here you're doing this at this high school, this at this high school, I could wear it when I went over to this high school, but now I can't wear it when I transfer. So I think you have to go back to square one, as I said to the board. Let's first spend this year having a dialogue about what we expect children to wear as they come to our school and every school. Once you design it district-wide, then you build into that, as a matter of criteria which I think was substantiated by the law office, avenues by which you can implement a uniform.

And there are some very strict guidelines of what you have to do if you're going to implement a uniform. You have to have a committee, you have to keep minutes, it has to address a particular concern in the community. You have to then take the committee and expand that to a larger group, and most of your community—let's say 75 to 80 percent—must buy into that. You have to make sure it addresses safety, you have to make sure it at least validates the First and the 14th Amendment. ...But it has the approval of the board, instead of just saying, okay I'm going out here as the principal in the community, I'm going to design mine. The bottom line for me is to first get that out of the way, and then if you want to jump into uniforms, we can have that discussion.