Educational Consultant Wayne Qualls spent all of Wednesday in Tullahoma answering questions from school administrators, staff and faculty and the community at large about his ongoing search for the new superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools (TCS).
Qualls had three meetings during the day: one for administrative personnel, another for teaching staff and a third for the general public. During each of these meetings he explained how he was approaching his search and invited questions and comments on the matter.
While Qualls noted that whoever replaces Lawson as superintendent will be at a disadvantage due to Lawson’s extended and excellent tenure at the helm of TCS, he assured people at each of the meetings that he was doing his best to find someone who would be the right fit for the system.
Qualls frequently called TCS one of the “top five” school districts in the state – a high compliment from the former commissioner of education for the state – due largely to Lawson’s leadership.
“The leader of this school system would be one of the top jobs in the state,” Qualls said of the job.
Qualls also told each meeting his philosophy of what he calls “the three Ds”: death, disease and decisions. All of these have significant impacts on our lives, he said, and decisions have larger impacts when they are made by other people.
To that effect, he told attendees that his goal was to try to make the transition to a new superintendent as “stress-free as possible.”
“We’re in this together,” he said at the beginning of each meeting.
He then opened up the floor to questions and comments from those in attendance.
A theme across all three meetings was concerns about the level of autonomy the staff and administrators enjoy in their respective school buildings. Particularly in the two meetings of school personnel, multiple people asked whether or not the next director of schools would be a “micromanager.”
Lawson’s current approach toward his school administrators, they said, was to hire the best people for the job and to trust them to do it without him needing to breathe down their necks.
In a similar vein, several people across all three meetings wanted to know if Qualls was going to search for someone with a “holistic” approach to education – meaning someone not solely driven by test scores.
Tullahoma has enjoyed a well-rounded approach to education for the past two decades under Lawson’s leadership, and several principals and teachers wanted to make sure they would be able to continue that type of education in the system.
Justin Scott, director of bands for THS, mentioned specifically the community’s dedication to both fine arts and athletics as something he wished for the new superintendent to consider high priorities.
Another comment from school and community members alike was the wish for whomever takes over as director of schools to want to stay in Tullahoma and invest themselves in both the school system and the community at large – to factor longevity into their decision to come here.
A final common theme among questions from school personnel and community members alike was the need for someone to communicate both with the community and state-level officials, such as the Tennessee General Assembly. In trying to stem the tide of over-testing students, several people told Qualls they wanted the new superintendent to be able to express those concerns to the state department of education as well as lawmakers.
Roy Turrentine, who has a sixth-grader in the system, expressed a wish that the new leader of the system act as a “cushion” against what can sometimes come across as an oppressive state department of education – particularly where testing is concerned. Turrentine said he hoped Lawson’s replacement takes into account that testing isn’t the only thing that matters in education.
Less common were some concerns that the next superintendent might come in and be what Qualls called an “agent of change.”
Debbie Edens, the principal of Jack T. Farrar Elementary School, wanted assurances that whoever is selected to be the leader of the system next year not want to come in and replace multiple administrators with “their own people.”
Qualls replied by saying people like that were “not the norm,” and he was making sure the people he is considering weren’t looking to do that.
A couple of smaller concerns for some teachers was what Qualls considered “quality teaching experience” when evaluating candidates, as well as whether or not Qualls was considering internal candidates as well as individuals from outside the district.
Qualls answered the first question with a description of his own personal matrix for evaluation. According to Qualls, he gives a certain number of “points” to candidates if they had zero to five years’ teaching experience, more for five to 10 years’ experience and a high score if they have 10-plus years of teaching experience.
In a similar vein, Carole Evans, who has four grandchildren in the school system, expressed a concern that not enough attention was given to internal candidates.
“There are principals who are well-qualified,” Evans said, and they should be looked at as potential superintendents.
These principals already know how the system functions and have shown they can work with the students and parents on any number of issues, she said.
As to whether or not internal candidates were being considered, Qualls said he would welcome a discussion with anyone who believed they could do the job, though he hadn’t heard from that many people already in the system so far. He said only two of the current principals in the district had approached him about the job, though he didn’t identify those individuals by name.
Qualls also fielded questions from school personnel about his search process, mostly to do with how he was finding potential candidates, what questions he was asking those candidates, how he was narrowing down the list and when they could expect a decision from the school board.
While Qualls said he could not speak for the board, his job was to talk to and seek out people interested in the position, as well as to reach out to people he knew about possibly coming aboard.
As of Wednesday, Qualls said he had spoken to about “36 or 37” people about the position, 20 of whom are sitting superintendents in other school districts. Additionally, there were around seven or eight out-of-state candidates he was talking to about the post.
Over the course of the search, he said, he would more than likely field questions from 40 to 50 interested parties – something that speaks to the quality of the Tullahoma school system.
The district has enjoyed a rare sense of continuity in leadership, he said, with two different directors of school serving 10-plus years. That extended continuity, Qualls said, made this position extremely attractive to potential candidates.
When asked how he went about finding these candidates, Qualls said it was a combination of reaching out himself or fielding phone calls from people who had heard there was an opening in Tullahoma. While the majority of the pool of candidates were contacted by Qualls personally, he said there had been a few who had reached out to him after having heard he was conducting the search for the system.
Several teachers and community members were expressly interested in how Qualls went about evaluating the potential candidates for the position, including THS math teacher Candace Terry.
Terry asked several questions during the faculty meeting Wednesday afternoon, including whether or not teachers might be more involved in the process and how Qualls goes about narrowing down the field of nearly 40 candidates to a short list to be presented to the school board.
“I’ve never been involved in something like this,” Terry said.
Qualls quelled most of her concerns by explaining his rigorous interview strategies. Firstly, he said, he takes the list of references provided and disregards them.
Instead, Qualls finds people who know each candidate personally – either through mutual friends or friends of friends – and asks those people how each candidate acts. The true measure of a candidate, he said, is how they behave in their personal life, so he seeks out those who know each candidate in a personal capacity.
“You need to know who somebody is,” Qualls said.
If the stories match up to what he’s heard of each candidate, they remain in the running, he said. If not, their resumes get “quietly moved to the bottom of the stack.”
Additionally, he said, he personally interviews each potential candidate for one to two hours, asking a series of questions about their professional history, their personal lives, how they might measure the success of a school system, their preferred leadership style and their goals for a system, among many other things.
After the community meeting, the school board met for a quick study session in order for Qualls to give an update on his search and how to proceed from there.
According to discussion from the school board, the next steps involved Qualls continuing his discussions and interviews with potential candidates through the summer.
There was a concern among the board members and Qualls about a legally-imposed “dead period” where no hires may be made, due to the upcoming August elections. According to state law, Qualls said, no hires may be made 45 days prior to an election nor 30 days after, meaning from about the middle of June to the beginning of September the board is embargoed from making any hires whatsoever. Before and after that period, however, the board is free hire a new superintendent.
There was some debate among board members and School Board Attorney Clifton Miller as to whether or not the hire should be made before the “dead period,” but ultimately the board felt a later hire would give Qualls more time to thoroughly vet candidates before bringing them before the board for consideration.
Once a short list has been identified, board members will be free to host their own individual introductions without hosting a public meeting.
There will be a public interview process as well, according to Miller, which will happen at a regular board meeting later in the year.
Qualls offered to solicit questions from the board members, synthesize the questions and assign them to the board member who asked them. There would probably be an overlap in some of the questions board members asked, he said, but he would do his best to make sure the final questions were given to those who were most interested in asking them.
While nothing was formally voted on in the study session, the final consensus among board members was to send in questions to Qualls, have board members meet with the short list of candidates individually on their own time and then host a final public interview at a meeting in the last quarter of the year.
While there is no official timeline for this to happen, the board and Qualls are well aware that Lawson’s final day in the system is in December, so the search will be complete by then.
Erin McCullough may be reached at email@example.com.