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Not Quite a Class Act

Does a world class school system fight with its neighbors?

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

That was one of many questions raised by Monday's workshop meeting of the Knox County school board, at which board members considered both a "template" for academic improvements and a potential lawsuit against Knox County Commission—the most obvious funding source for those improvements.

If the board and its hired gun, Superintendent Charles Lindsey, can reconcile those oppositional efforts, they could be on the verge of the county's most significant educational advancements in a decade. But if they can't, they could be entering a political minefield few of them will survive. At the moment, they seem more inclined toward the latter.

The "template" in question is the long-awaited result of Lindsey's cheerleading talk about making Knox County schools "internationally competitive." That phrase has now been scrapped in favor of the just-as-vague "world class school system," but the idea remains the same: producing a specific plan for improving everything from student performance to teacher pay.

Fortunately for Lindsey, he had good hands on deck in preparing the template. Although at the moment it's not so much a plan as a wish list, under the supervision of Assistant Superintendent Sarah Simpson, the "world class school system" committee has produced a number of worthwhile and even innovative recommendations.

Simpson, who has been in central office since the 1970s and has effectively run the academic side of the school system under three consecutive superintendents, has a grasp of educational theory and practice that shows clearly in both the scope and detail of the committee's report. (Her much-speculated-about retirement, whenever it comes, will mark an end of an era in local education in a way that no superintendent's departure has.)

The template identifies 14 goals for graduates of a "world class" Knox County system. Among other things, it says they should be "Able to communicate orally, visually and graphically," "Able to organize, plan, implement and evaluate," "Able, to lead, follow and cooperate with others," "Physically and emotionally healthy," and "An active, responsible citizen in the democratic process."

It's tempting to wonder why they didn't include "Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" while they were at it, but all that high-minded rhetoric is followed up with some pointed specifics. First off is a massive expansion of the system's birth-to-kindergarten programs to identify children with obstacles to learning as early as possible and begin addressing those challenges well before traditional schooling starts. The recommendation is based on current brain research that confirms what developmental psychologists have believed for decades—the first five years of life are hugely influential in shaping both attitude and aptitude for education.

From there, the "world class" model takes in everything from expanded magnet and vocational programs to strategies for reducing student suspension rates to adopting an "alternative calendar" that would shorten the summer break and scatter vacation days throughout the year. On the personnel side, it recommends a 3-to-12 percent pay hike for educators, plus signing bonuses for new recruits—both aimed at easing the county's continuing struggle to attract and retain good teachers.

The template will undoubtedly create some controversies in-house. Its recommendations for assessing schools and classifying them as "Exemplary," "Motivated," "Stationary," or "Priority" rely almost entirely on standardized tests. That's a concern for anyone who worries that the increasing prevalence of those tests, and the pressure on teachers to produce high marks on them, is undermining more comprehensive education. And the Knox County Education Association will probably have some questions about a proposal to reward teachers in high-performing schools with an extra $1,000 a year. (Among other things, that would seem to exacerbate the flight of the best teachers to the more affluent schools, where they'd have a better shot at the extra money.)

But those are questions that can presumably be addressed in the coming year, during which Lindsey plans to take the template—along with its estimated $44 million start-up price tag—"to the community" via a series of public forums and focus groups. Where the template truly falls short is in failing to look beyond the classroom. It gives no sense of how a world class school system would function at the crucial administrative and fiscal levels. While it stresses accountability for teachers and principals, it says almost nothing about the accountability of those who actually run the system. And that's the level where Lindsey and the board are currently in trouble.

It was ironic that, just minutes after Monday's presentation by Simpson, the board heard from lawyer Robert Watson about its legal scuffle with County Commission. The board is asserting that Commission's line-item approval of all school spending over $50,000 is an illegal exercise of power. Commission disagrees. Moreover, Commission is already threatening to sue the board for hiring Watson—a private attorney—without approval from the Knox County law director.

The legal questions are somewhat involved, and the board may have a good case on one or both issues. But the tone of the debate has become unnecessarily harsh on both sides in the last few months, and most of the responsibility for the escalation lies with Lindsey.

The school board and County Commission have always bickered over finances, an inevitable result of a badly structured funding system in which Commission appropriates money but the school board spends it. It leaves both bodies feeling like they don't have enough control, and also allows both of them to duck responsibility for the ultimate stewardship of the school system. But whether it's because of Lindsey's "outsider" status (he came to Knox County from South Carolina), his prickly temperament, or simply his tendency to cater to the chronically wounded pride of the school board, relations with Commission during his tenure have degenerated from occasional sniping to nearly all-out war.

The most recent offensive (in all senses of the word) was a newsletter Lindsey sent to parents in Halls attacking Commissioner Mary Lou Horner for allegedly holding up roof repair funds at Halls High. The same missive heaped obsequious praise on school board member Diane Dozier for getting the repairs done. Whatever you think of Horner's brassy antics on commission, she is hardly the right person for Lindsey to be antagonizing at a time when he is ostensibly seeking support from the whole community.

In the ongoing legal dramas, Lindsey has managed to entangle not only commissioners but other county departments such as the law office and the trustee, who would presumably rather be left out of the territorial squabbling. In adopting this us-versus-the world stance, Lindsey may be ingratiating himself with some embittered members of the school board. But with elections coming up next year for five of the board's nine seats, sitting board members may find themselves vulnerable to the perception that they're causing more problems than they're solving. And Lindsey could find himself with a set of new bosses.

More to the point, at a time when the board is presenting a flawed but impressive proposal for long-term improvements, it simply doesn't make sense to be so embroiled in short-sighted political power struggles. A world class school system has to begin with world class leadership.

October 4, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 40
© 2001 Metro Pulse