Coming off his first year, Superintendent Charles Lindsey finds himself with a lot left to prove.
by Jesse Fox Mayshark
Dr. Willard Daggett is pacing a stage on the floor of Thompson Boling Arena. He's a small man in a dark suit waving his arms in big gestures. Except for a lectern and an improbable hedgerow of ferns in wicker baskets along the front lip, which come almost to Daggett's knees, the stage is empty. Daggett has a microphone, and he's using it to exhort, cajole, conspire, and commiserate with his audiencesome 5,000 or so employees of the Knox County School System who are scattered widely among the auditorium's orange seats. School board members sit dutifully in the front row. Most of the teachersat least the ones who aren't out kibitzing in the hallwayssit in the back or high up on the sides.
Watching from stage left, his arms folded tightly so that his powder blue suit jacket puffs out at his narrow waist, is school Superintendent Charles Lindsey. As Daggett, a motivational speaker from New York, talks about tests and teacher stress and public perceptions of public schools, Lindsey scans the room with a slightly anxious distractedness, occasionally breaking into a nodding smile at a familiar face. Daggett might be the feature attraction, but this is Lindsey's show. He's the one who put together the Aug. 9 back-to-school pep rally and made it mandatory for all his employees. And on the eve of his second year as Knox County educator-in-chief, he is the one most on displayto his employees, his school board employers, and, less directly, to the broader community that he hopes will eventually buy into his plans to move Tennessee's third-largest school system up the rungs of respectability. It's a challenge he has yet to fully tackle, and the doubts linger on: about hiring an out-of-town superintendent; about the substance of Lindsey's ideas; about whether Knox County even wants the things he aspires to.
So when Daggett tells the crowd that "the American education system, whether we like it or not, is more of a political system than an education system," there is probably no one in the vast echoing room more aware of that truth than Dr. Charles Lindsey.
East Tennessee is made up of too many conflicting elements to make sweeping statements about its character. But one strong factor in its history has always been the isolationist. As they did in the early 1800s, people still move here to get away from the demands, hassles, and obligations of other places. Those freedoms carry their own consequences. A region that thinks its low taxes are outrageously high and still bears some of the traditional Baptist suspicion of worldly education is not a great place to try to convince people to pay for an "internationally competitive school district."
But that's what Lindsey says he wants to do.
The Mississippi native, whose courtly bearing hovers somewhere between abstemious and aloof, says he's glad to have his first year out of the way. And what a year it was.
First there was Lindsey's demotion of Gibbs High School Principal Jerry Sharp, for negative comments Sharp made about the superintendent's dress code policy. Sharp wasn't the most popular administrator in the county, but the timing of the action, right after the start of the last school year, raised some hackles inside and outside the school system. Rumors flew that the new guy had it in for the school system's ol' boy network.
"There were some principals who thought there was a hit list, which there wasn't," says school board Chairman Jim McClain, himself a former principal. "And [Lindsey] did address that very admirably. But I'm sure it made some people nervous."
Then there was the revelation that Lindsey was skirting open records laws by writing private memos to school board members disguised as "diary entries." (It didn't help that when they were published, one of them featured a prominent misspelling of the word "moot.")
He spent all year trying to get the school system's food services department in order, replacing two successive directors amid allegations of bad bookkeeping and inventory problems.
He's toiled to keep the school construction calendar on track, most notably with a hot-button elementary school in the Brickey community. Relations between the school board and the Public Building Authority, which supervises school construction, have gone from uneasy to almost hostile. It's possible the board will soon dispense with PBA's services altogether and give Lindsey total control of the projects.
Then there was the budget. Lindsey proposed an ambitious spending plan, adding $20 million for new textbooks, assistant principals, elementary school art teachers, and other programs. But in a no-tax-hike year, County Executive Tommy Schumpert and County Commission scaled the request back dramatically. That put Lindsey on the offensive, writing guest editorials in newspapers and going to every media outlet in town assailing the lack of funding.
And all along, the new supe has stuck to his unwieldy mantra: "internationally competitive school district." But as he admits, it's a phrase still in need of definition.
"It most certainly is nebulous," he says, "because I can't hand you something and say this is what it looks like, tastes like, feels like. But we're headed toward that."
That's what he hopes to do with his next "12-month agenda." Sitting in his office, he brandishes the last such agenda proudly. It's a color-coded sheet that ticks off the things he can point to from his first year: various training programs for teachers and administrators; a new system-wide dress code; voter registration drives for employees; new principal appointments.
Over the coming year, he says, he'll take have each school develop its own agenda for improvement, and at the same time compile information from schools in the U.S. and abroad. Put all together, it will theoretically produce "an international template" for the school system.
It will be a crucial 12 months. Although Lindsey's immediate bosses on the school board generally give him high marks, there are plenty of others in and outside the schools who want to see something more than grand goals.
"I think he has some positive, bold ideas," says County Commissioner Mike McMillan, whoas a school teacheralso happens to work for Lindsey. "I'm just not sure at this point that the people charged with implementing them know what the expectations are."
Lindsey came to Knox County from Summerville in South Carolina, where he oversaw a system of 17,000 students. He allows that the size of Knox County has taken some adjusting. He's visited only about one-third of the county's 90 schools, but he says he's at least driven by for a look at the rest of them.
When he was hired, he seemed like the safest bold choice the school board could make: someone from outside (a first for Knox County) who had some Tennessee rootsdegrees from UTand a comfortable Southern demeanor.
School board members say he's in close contact with them, via weekly phone calls and other means (including the discontinued diaries). As was reflected in their strongly positive official evaluation of his first year, they like his ideas, his energy, and his willingness to stand up for the schools.
"I think he's faced a lot of controversy, and I think he's come through it very well," says Diane Jablonski, who represents West Knox schools including Farragut, Karns, and Powell. "He has taken the direction of being the true leader of initiating dialogue on the budget. I think he took a very strong stance on explaining to everybody what it was that we wanted and needed, the direction we wanted to go, where the new money was going to be spent. Unfortunately, County Commission didn't see fit to buy into that vision."
That "vision"which included adding some 68 positions for new programs including art and foreign languages in elementary schoolscould have been the first step toward Lindsey's concept of international competitiveness. But he acknowledges a comprehensive proposal will take longer. Within two years, he says, he wants to have specific plans to submit for community approval.
"I think that how you get there is to bring the community to a referendum, a vote, that says we're going to go to the polls and we're going to vote whether we want an internationally competitive school district," Lindsey says. "This is how much it would cost, this is what it's going to buy in the classroom, and it's listed in the referendum, at the ballot, that this is what you're going to buy."
But two years is a long time in local politics. "That's one area he needs to hurry up and do, is define exactly what that means," says County Commissioner David Collins. "I don't think he fully knows, and we as a community don't know."
Tom Ingram, head of the Knox Area Chamber partnership, hits a similar note. "From a business perspective, I really liked his opening lines about creating an international school system here and showing us what that would look like," he says. "I think that in this recent budget crisis, I sensed that was a little off course. In listening to presentations at County Commission and several other places, I didn't feel the vision and the picture of an internationally competitive school system was as clear yet as we would like it to be to invest [in it]."
Lindsey has actually done several of the things he promised for his first year: laying out the 12-month agenda, pursuing new funding, planning for an independent audit. He has been appearing at Rotary clubs, non-profit groups, business organizations and others"He hasn't turned down many things," McClain saysto introduce himself and his ideas.
But there are questions about how well he can build consensus. He has a reputation for holding himself somewhat aparteven senior staff members can have trouble getting slots on his calendar, which he keeps himself. He reportedly took a long time to learn some of his veteran administrators' names. And he sometimes presents full-blown proposals by fiat.
Tommy Prince, until recently the vice-chair of the school board, was the only board member to vote against hiring Lindsey. He is generally complimentary of the superintendent's performance, but he warns that Lindsey needs broader participation in establishing his agendas.
"If the board does not take more ownership in defining that, [Lindsey's] going to be out there by himself and seeming stuffy and arrogant," says Prince, who lost a re-election bid this year. "And some of the feedback I've gotten is he comes across like that."
Several county commissioners agreeespecially after a pointed speech Lindsey made at the Aug. 9 rally, in which he urged teachers to be more political about lobbying for funding.
"Dr. Lindsey at times tends to be confrontational, and that doesn't always help," Collins says.
Veteran Commissioner Mary Lou Horner, who chairs Commission's education committee, gives Lindsey good marks for showing up and speaking at committee meetings. She says he "has a good personality." But she's heard less charitable things from her colleagues.
"I think Lindsey needs to be careful, because you know what? He needs to come back to us next year, and the next year, and the next year," she says. "I have heard some commissioners say, 'I'm over him.' And they're good commissioners who support education. The whole thing is the attitude of the school board members toward County Commission. I think he's reflecting that, and that is going to hurt him."
Board members do seem happy with Lindsey's stern tone toward the county legislature. Jablonski notes that commissioners at the pep rally were visibly uneasy during Lindsey's remarks.
"They were feeling uncomfortable, and they should be feeling uncomfortable," she says. "But I don't think his purpose was to make commissioners feel uncomfortable. Dr. Lindsey's purpose is to say, we've got to decide what we want for our community."
Of course, keeping school board members on his side is logically more of a priority for Lindsey than it was for past superintendents, who were elected by popular vote (including his predecessor Allen Morgan, who was elected before he became the county's first appointed school chief). As Horner observes, "He only has to make five people happy"that is, a five-member majority of the nine-person board.
"The push [for an appointed superintendent] was to take politics out of it," Prince says. "No, you just changed the politics. It didn't take it out."
As an example, he and several others cite Lindsey's controversial hiring of architect Joe Goodstein on the Brickey school project. Naming architects is at the discretion of the superintendent; in this case, he took a recommendation from board member Diane Dozier, who represents the Brickey area. She pushed for Goodstein. When questions surfaced about problems with other projects Goodstein had worked on, Lindsey came under fire.
Lindsey, for his part, says, "The performance of the architect at Brickeyand he's done 40-plus buildings over a period of timethe performance has been outstanding. We've never had any problem of the sort that County Commission has indicated they're having... For us, it's not a controversy."
Prince calls the episode "a rookie mistake," but says it illustrates a tendency for Lindsey to be "too responsive" to individual board members' desires.
On the other hand, Lindsey's relations with his own employees got off to an uneven start. There were still many in the system loyal to Assistant Superintendent Roy Mullins, who served as interim superintendent before Lindsey arrived and was a candidate for the permanent post. Combined with the Jerry Sharp incident, it created some tension in the ranks. That was reflected in the school board's first evaluation of Lindsey. He received his lowest overall mark (a 3.2 out of 5) on the item, "Develops good staff morale and loyalty to the organization."
But the distrust may be subsiding, especially with the retirement of several older administrators. That opens the way for a host of appointments by Lindsey.
Jablonski acknowledges the retirements may reflect dissatisfaction among the school system's politically connected old guard. But she says that's balanced by new opportunities for younger administrators.
"There's people that are in their late 40s maybe or early 50s that have got renewed energy," she says.
Gary Harmon, president of the Knox County Education Association, which represents the county's teachers, says Lindsey has been accessible and sympathetic. But he notes the absence of salary improvements as a priority on the "12-month agenda." "I think he needs to spend some time convincing his teachers he cares about them," he says.
Horner, who represents Halls, says her constituents are largely happy with new administrators there and at Gibbs, even though some at Halls High felt the principal post should have gone to a longtime assistant principal rather than Patricia Groves, who transferred in from South-Doyle High School.
The other big area of contention continues to be the school capital program. The school board hired PBA to oversee construction projects in 1996, largely because of the system's own difficulty in keeping projects on time and under budget. Those have remained concerns, though, and Lindsey seems inclined to bring the program back under his own jurisdiction.
"I think on paper, it has great potential for good," he says of the PBA contract. "Given the experiences that we've had, I think truthfully there are some issues that we are going to have to resolve to make a final decision...We are operating on a month-by-month contract until we come to some conclusion."
Dale Smith, the new head of PBA, says he might be willing to extend the temporary arrangement one more month, but no further.
"I have been kind of waiting patiently since May for Dr. Lindsey to proceed with a discussion," he says. "I'm still waiting."
School officials complain that PBA has inflated budgets and not always listened to school board requests. Smith says board members always ask for "an optimal school," and then get angry when it costs more than they want it to. And, he adds, "They select the architect based on no discernible criteria other than that the school board member whose district they're in chooses them."
If the mutual dissatisfaction does lead to a separation, Lindsey says he could either look for another firm to do what PBA is currently doing or bring all the construction functions in-house to the school system. But given the problematic history of the construction program, any changes are likely to get severe scrutiny from the purse-string pullers on County Commission.
All of which should add up to a busy second year. But Lindsey's goals go well beyond the next 12 months.
"I can tell you this," he says, "we'll never get an internationally competitive school district for $4,900 per child [Knox County's current spending level]. But let's say that it's $5,500 per child, or it's $5,800 child... That's where we're headed is to really hammer out a template of an internationally competitive school district, [and] what it would cost. Now, as a community, do you want it or do you not want it?"
Of course, that could depend on how he asks.
August 17, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 33
© 2000 Metro Pulse