Georgia picks leader to improve schools

Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

A private job interview is stressful enough, but Tuesday the three finalists for Georgia’s new school “turnaround” position had to perform before a panel of potential bosses, in a meeting that was open to the public. Winning the job after the daylong event was Eric Thomas, a Savannah native who consults with schools across the country in his role with the University of Virginia.

The interviewers were wowed by his expertise and his ability to articulate a clear vision for different audiences.

“The biggest thing, though, is he understands about shared leadership with school districts,” said Mike Royal, chairman of the Georgia Board of Education, which voted unanimously to give the job to Thomas. Details of his contract will be worked out later.

Two other educators who also grew up in Georgia and followed their careers to other places, Eric Parker and Lannie Milon, Jr., were also vying to be the state’s first Chief Turnaround Officer. The position was established by a new state law aimed at improving low-performing schools.

Thomas will face scrutiny from school principals, parents and politicians as he attempts a daunting task: raising test scores, graduation rates and other measures at schools that have bumped along the bottom, in some cases for generations. He will play a delicate role, as both the high official targeting schools for state intervention and the ally coaching them on how to improve enough to avoid a takeover.

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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