Hence Royal’s comment about shared leadership, and the decision to hold the high-stakes job interviews in public.
“We wanted to throw them in the pit and make them fight because that’s part of this job,” Royal said. “Make them dance on their feet a little bit.”
The turnaround chief position was established by House Bill 338, which was passed along bipartisan lines during this year’s legislative session. Gov. Nathan Deal pushed it through the Legislature after an earlier political miscalculation. Last year, he hoped voters would let him create a statewide “Opportunity School District” with authority to take over schools deemed “chronically failing,” but they rejected his constitutional amendment in November, preferring to keep schools under local control.
HB 338 requires a more collaborative approach, though school districts could still lose control of schools that do not improve.
With a relatively small staff — the state has set aside $1 million in the budget to fund the office, with $1.25 million more expected to come from a grant program — the turnaround chief will also have to lean on the Georgia Department of Education and its large bureaucracy for help. That could take some diplomacy, since Superintendent Richard Woods, the agency chief, asked the Legislature to give him control over the turnaround process. Lawmakers instead handed authority to the school board, which is appointed by the governor.
That may be why, in his answer to his first interview question, about what he would do in his first 10 days on the job, Thomas said he’d spend time in the education department offices, getting to know key people. He said his goal is to get everyone pulling in the same direction: “I’m a huge fan of framing and messaging, so make sure we’re speaking the same language,” he said.
Thomas is chief support officer of the University of Virginia’s turnaround program and lives in Cincinnati. His hire won’t be official until a contract can be negotiated. A final vote by the school board is expected Oct. 25, after Tuesday’s unanimous school board vote for him.
An advisory council of education advocates who helped with the selection process also unanimously settled on Thomas, said Jimmy Stokes, who chaired that council and is executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.
“There was really not any doubt,” he said.
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The school will be focused on helping students better prepare for the workforce.