Georgia’s school turnaround chief a finalist for Wisconsin job

The man who was hired two years ago to bolster Georgia’s underperforming schools is a finalist for a job in another state.

Eric Thomas was selected as Georgia's first chief turnaround officer in the fall of 2017, just months after the Georgia General Assembly created the position at the request of then-Gov. Nathan Deal.

Thomas has been trying to leave the job almost since Deal's time in office ended at the beginning of this year. News reports earlier this year indicated he was a finalist for jobs in Rochester, New York; Canton, Ohio, and Michigan. Now, he's in the running to lead the Madison, Wisconsin, school system.

“I was made aware of the Madison Superintendent vacancy. After some research, I decided to explore it,” Thomas told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in response to a query about why he wants to leave.

His statement skirts the long-running tension between his office and that of state school Superintendent Richard Woods, who has always wanted control over the turnaround program.

During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers, acting on Deal’s behalf, created the Chief Turnaround Office. Months before that, during the 2016 general election, Deal had watched voters reject his proposed constitutional amendment to let the state take over “chronically failing” schools. Lawmakers came back with a bill establishing a turnaround office to work with those same schools.

Woods, who was elected statewide, asked lawmakers to put him in charge, reasoning that voters selected him to oversee education. Lawmakers instead put the turnaround chief under the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor. The disagreement exposed a rift between Woods and Deal, who had criticized Woods for a "downward spiral of failure" in education under his leadership.

The relationship between the superintendent and the governor's office improved after Brian Kemp succeeded Deal. The pair have traveled the state to appear together on "listening" tours, and Kemp has described the relationship as "fantastic."

Thomas, meanwhile, has been complaining about a lack of collaboration between his office and the superintendent's for over a year. Last November, as Deal was preparing to leave office, Thomas told the education board that he hoped for more "cohesiveness" and less "competition" with Woods' Department of Education.

The Education Department recently launched an internal investigation into complaints by current or former turnaround office employees. (Woods asked his internal auditor to investigate after the department received allegations of discrimination, conflict of interest, misuse of funds and "inequitable" hiring and reimbursement practices, according to a letter obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

An Education Department spokeswoman said at the time that the review had “absolutely nothing to do with the perceived politics” around the turnaround office.

Observers say the two agencies have mixed as well as oil and water, though.

There has been unrelenting “friction” between them since the beginning, said Jimmy Stokes, the chairman of a state advisory committee for the turnaround office. “It started off on the wrong foot and it never got better,” said Stokes, who recently retired as executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders. “That makes for a stressful environment.”

Stokes described Thomas as knowledgeable and easy to work with but said he has never gotten enough funding. The office relies on the governor and the superintendent to provide the money.

Kemp’s office declined to comment. The superintendent’s office had no comment.

State education board member Larry Winter said Kemp and Deal have different priorities. Deal’s wife is a former teacher, and Deal took intense interest in schools. He wanted to intervene directly in a relatively small number that perform at the very bottom whereas Kemp has taken a broader approach, focusing instead on raising teacher pay and adding funding for security at all schools.

“One’s a micro approach,” said Winter, whose term on the board is ending. “One’s a macro approach.”

Thomas, who may be frustrated by the macro approach, could be gone soon. The Madison Metropolitan School District posted a timeline indicating that either Thomas or one of two other finalists could be their new superintendent by February.


A TIMELINE FOR GEORGIA’S SCHOOL TURNAROUND EFFORT

  • November 2016: Georgia voters reject then-Gov. Nathan Deal's constitutional amendment to take over "chronically failing" schools.
  • March 2017: State lawmakers pass House Bill 338, establishing the Chief Turnaround Office.
  • April 2017: Deal signs the "First Priority Act" into law.
  • October 2017: The Georgia Board of Education hires Eric Thomas as Georgia's first chief turnaround officer.
  • December 2017: Thomas selects 11 schools to participate in the turnaround program.
  • June 2018: Thomas adds nine schools to the program.
  • November 2018: Thomas appeals for more collaboration, less competition, with the Georgia Department of Education.
  • February 2020: The date the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin expects to select its next superintendent.