Georgia hires first school ‘turnaround’ chief

Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas

The hire of Savannah native Eric Thomas as Georgia’s first school turnaround chief was formalized Wednesday.

Last week, after interviewing three finalists, the Georgia Board of Education settled on Thomas to shepherd the improvement of low-performing schools.

On Wednesday, after subsequent negotiations with Thomas about the terms of his employment, the board voted unanimously to hire him as a state employee. Pay and other details were not immediately available.

The hiring of Thomas is the first significant step toward implementation of House Bill 338, which passed the Georgia General Assembly this year with the backing of Gov. Nathan Deal.

The First Priority Act, as it was called, was not Deal's preferred method to address school performance. Last year, voters rejected his referendum on establishing a much more powerful provision for a statewide Opportunity School District. Had that constitutional amendment passed, Deal would have had authority to seize "chronically failing" schools, put them into that special district and appoint someone to run them.

As Chief Turnaround Officer reporting to Deal’s appointed state school board, Thomas will ultimately have similar powers to intervene in schools. But under the new legislation, school districts must acquiesce to the intervention. The law gives them significant reason to do so, since refusal could result in the restoration of costly bureaucratic mandates that they have been able to escape through “flexibility” contracts with the state.

Thomas, as point man on the project, will decide which among the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools merit intervention. He will work with the school districts and with the state Department of Education to devise tailored turnaround plans, and he will determine whether each school succeeded. He will also decide what to do with those that do not. Options include replacing the staff or putting a school under a non-profit manager.

Thomas has been working as chief support officer of the University of Virginia's turnaround program, a joint venture of the university's business and education schools. He was vetted by an advisory panel of Georgia education advocates, who unanimously embraced him as the strongest candidate.

The state school board cited both his expertise in consulting with schools and school districts across the country and his demeanor, which they found to be collaborative.

During his interview with the board last week, Thomas, who previously was an administrator with Cincinnati Public Schools, gave a clear signal about what he considers to be the most important driver of school performance.

“The research is really clear,” he said. “If you want to move a school, it’s high quality teachers and an effective building principal.”

Thomas starts his job with Georgia on Nov. 16.

In other Education news:

A brief informational look at the HOPE educational programs including the HOPE Scholarship and the Zell Miller Scholarship.