Superintendent’s reach has limits; Woods to take measured approach

En route to his election Tuesday as Georgia’s next school superintendent, Richard Woods won over many conservatives — and made some enemies — with his criticism of state and federal initiatives like Common Core and Race to the Top.

Some wonder, though, what type of changes Woods can really make to those programs and others once he takes office, considering the constraints of the job.

“It’s easy as a candidate to express your opinion about what you say you are going to do but there is a reality,” outgoing Superintendent John Barge told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview. “There is a very prescribed balance of power between the superintendent and the school board. When you get in, it isn’t as easy as saying you’re going to change this. There isn’t a whole lot of absolute power that either group has.”

As superintendent, Woods will set the agenda for monthly board meetings, but any action must be approved by the majority of the 13-member board, whom the governor appoints. The superintendent doesn’t vote and has no veto power, and his department’s budget is proposed by the governor and approved by the Georgia Legislature. Those lawmakers can also write bills that affect education policy.

Woods’ success will depend on building productive relationships with Gov. Nathan Deal and influential lawmakers, say longtime education activists like Tim Callahan.

“I suspect the school superintendent’s job will have its parameters scoped down quite a bit,” said Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “Deal butted heads with Dr. Barge quite a bit. Because of that, quite a bit of power has transferred to the governor’s office.”

Woods, a retired teacher and administrator from South Georgia, wants to audit the state education department in search of wasteful spending. He wants students to have strong vocabulary and reading skills before they enroll in school and is talking to nonprofit groups about how they can help. He’s also suggested breaking up Georgia Milestones, the new end-of-course test set to begin this school year, into smaller tests administered throughout the year. He wants to slow things down and focus on classroom instruction, particularly in elementary school.

“We’ve tried to do way too much too fast and at one time,” Woods, 52, said in a lengthy interview with the AJC in his hometown of Tifton the day after the election.

Woods said he will not arrive in Atlanta in January like an Old West sheriff, firing away at policies he doesn’t like. For example, on Common Core, education standards used in Georgia and 44 other states, Woods said he wants to explore ways to give school districts greater teaching flexibility.

Many conservatives say Common Core is a disguised effort by Washington to take over education policy. “What I found on the campaign trail is Common Core means different things to different people,” he said.

To many, including state Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican, Woods is an unknown. Woods spent 14 years teaching social studies and was Irwin County High School’s Teacher of the Year in 1992. He taught in Kenya during a missionary trip. He’s coached basketball, football and golf. Near his front door is a sign quoting the Old Testament’s Joshua 24:15: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

“I understand he’s a good, decent man,” Millar said. “People say good things about him.”

Millar, a member of the Senate education committee, notes areas where Woods may have to bend. Woods opposed the 2012 ballot initiative to empower the state to approve charter schools. Deal, who supported the initiative, has hinted he would go further in a second term.

Woods is courting committee chairmen and veteran lawmakers like Millar. He also wants Deal’s ear. Woods said he and the governor chatted a few times while campaigning together and plan to partner on some issues.

Woods said Deal “invited him to the table” for next year’s negotiations to revise the Quality Basic Education formula for funding local school districts. In recent years districts have gotten less than the formula calls for.

Woods said he doesn’t necessarily want to cut money going to school districts. “Let’s look at how we spend the money,” he said, repeating a frequent theme. Woods said he believes the incoming Congress will be more budget-conscious.

Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a fiscally conservative think tank, said the economy will drive changes to the formula. “If the economy continues to grow, you might be able to fix that,” he said.

Allyson Gevertz, a parent in north DeKalb County, said she’s wary about Woods. She said she voted against him because of his positions on Common Core and school funding. On each issue, Woods would need to act in concert with other state leaders to effect change, she said. “I think parents across the state will be watching all of them to see what happens.”

Barge, too, was critical of Woods’ campaign talk, particularly about delaying Georgia Milestones. Barge, a Republican, endorsed Democrat Valarie Wilson in Tuesday’s election.

“Sometimes, I wonder how much Mr. Woods knows about the process,” said Barge.

However, as politicians say, “Elections are elections,” and both men show signs they want to play nice. Barge plans to meet with Woods and is preparing a transition manual. He knows the difficulty of getting things done as superintendent.

Barge believes Georgia’s integrated math curriculum — which blends algebra, geometry and other math concepts — makes it tougher for some students to graduate. He wanted school districts to have other options. Some changes were made, but the integrated model still exists, Barge noted with some disappointment.

Woods noted Barge didn’t have experience running a department before he took office in 2011. Woods believes his past experiences as a school administrator will help him lead the Georgia Department of Education.

“There’s no illusion. It will be a challenge,” Woods said. “I think we’ll be going in looking at what we can actually control and focusing on that.”

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