When an organization has a chance at a do-over, the key questions to ask are: What did we do right last time and how can we keep doing it? And what did we do wrong and how can we avoid the same mistakes?
Gainesville schools should be taking those notions to heart in the effort to hire a new superintendent beginning with the fall school year.
Superintendent Wanda Creel announced last year that she would resign at the end of this school year. Her three-year tenure was marked with some positive accomplishments but also controversies. The ouster of popular longtime Gainesville athletic director Wayne Vickery in 2015 left a bad taste in some mouths. Then the dispute over construction of the new Enota elementary school building and destruction of its beloved Smartville Garden left many residents feeling school leaders did not listen to their concerns.
Right or wrong, that’s the impression left with many. Gainesville school board members have faced this before; in 2008, popular superintendent Steven Ballowe was ousted after mismanaging the school budget into the red. The district recovered when Gainesville High graduate and longtime educator Merrianne Dyer was brought in to lend a steady hand and repair broken trust. Now the system needs a similar figure to unite the community.
Despite its challenges, the school system’s potential remains strong and overall performance is on the upswing. The school board was recognized last year as “exemplary” by the Georgia School Boards Association. Centennial Arts Academy recently was removed from the state’s list of struggling schools, and Fair Street is making progress in that direction. Gainesville High School recently placed in four of six Advanced Placement Honor School categories. So there remains a strong foundation to build upon, including an engaged and involved parent base. That’s why it’s important to bring in the right person to lead the district forward.
The board interviewed 32 candidates for the job and settled on a single finalist, Union County associate superintendent Jeremy Williams. He has strong local ties, which would serve him well: He is a native of Habersham County and earned degrees from the University of North Georgia and Piedmont College, and served as a student teacher in Gainesville schools before moving on to full-time positions in Gwinnett County and elsewhere.
That said, Union County has a very different student population than Gainesville’s and he will need to adjust to a more diverse city system and its unique challenges.
If he accepts the job, he will inherit a school system in need of a team leader who can bring people on board with his ideas through effective persuasion and communication, two qualities often lacking. Board members conceded as much in a self-assessment last summer, ranking eight of 17 areas as “needs improvement” including better communication and feedback. That’s never easy in an administrative structure that includes five board members and the superintendent, plus staff, principals and teachers. But Dyer did it well, so it can be done.
To start down that road, the board crafted a survey to let residents weigh in on the qualities preferred in a superintendent by ranking 19 characteristics or qualifications. More than 500 people responded, and the results were enlightening.
Based on those responses and our own observations, here are some of our top priorities for the next school superintendent:
• Communicate effectively with employees and the public. That includes full transparency, conducting an open administration that gives and receives feedback from all who have a stake in schools.
• Be a team leader, not a dictator. The superintendent must work well with the board, district staff, principals and others and earn buy-in from everyone to ensure all oars are pulling in the same direction.
• Be decisive. Take time to make the right decision but don’t waffle when a tough call needs to be made. That seemed to be the case at times during the Enota debate.
• Manage finances carefully. Taxpayers assume officials will be diligent with their money, but that wasn’t the case in 2008, and that lesson should be learned. Spend what is needed but not a penny more.
• Know the student population; outreach to the minority community is vital. Williams is coming from a school district with a student population that is 94 percent white to one with only 17 percent white students, most of the rest Latino and African-American. Union has only 1 percent of students with limited English proficiency; Gainesville has 34 percent. And poverty is more prevalent; some 76 percent of Gainesville students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, compared to 60 percent in Union.
• Understand that not all students are college-bound but still need an education that steers them on a career path. Effective vocational programs and emphasis on basic skills can give all students a head start into the workplace.
• Adapt to new learning methods, particularly in the use of technology, social media and tools relatable to today’s students.
• Deal with problems openly and swiftly and be willing to admit mistakes. Passing the buck and pointing fingers is not a trait for any effective manager.
While checking off all these boxes may be a lot to ask, it’s also not rocket science. Common sense, humility, openness and a shared sense of purpose can guide the new school chief down the right road, and will win over staff and residents. Once they’re all on the same side, the task will be much easier for the new superintendent and board.
If Williams takes over as superintendent, we wish him well and hope he can join the board in taking Gainesville’s tradition of school excellence to the next level.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.