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tim rowland - 4/29/01

April 30, 2001

Open up the search for Bartlett's successor



Some 20 years ago, West Virginia University was in the process of selecting a college president. Four finalists were named and they individually came before the students, faculty and staff all of whom were free to ask questions and evaluate.

The result was that WVU got one of the best college educators ever, E. Gordon Gee.

Fast forward to recent times, when a school district in Tennessee was seeking a superintendent. It narrowed the field to four, including Washington County's current superintendent Herman Bartlett. Tennessee announced it would be holding public interviews of its finalists and Bartlett quickly announced he was out of the running.

Why? Perhaps he might have been asked in a public forum what happened in his previous three jobs. Perhaps he sensed that iffy answers he might get away with in the darkness of privacy he could not hope to pass off in the sunshine of the public.

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Bartlett, of course, announced his resignation here last week following a series of secret meetings by school board members. Presumably the two events were linked, although no one has publicly verified this. Likely we'll never know the full story, but Bartlett's methods have long been debated.

Plenty of teachers will tell you that there can be little doubt that poor manners played a part. Depending on how poor, this may or may not be a reason to force a person out of his post. There also can be little doubt intimidation played a role. He once jokingly threatened to have one of our reporters shot if he failed to write a positive story. The superintendent was accustomed to having his own way.

I respect Herman Bartlett in that I do not doubt his intense desire to educate children as best he sees how. But in the field of public service there are some lines you can't cross, no matter how innocent (or guilty) your intentions. Compounding the problem, stories and rumors fly - men who may merely be brusque are transformed in the mind of the public to full-bore ogres, especially under the shadow of secret inquiries.

Public rumors and private investigations aside, however, there can be no doubt Bartlett did not have the respect of the teachers, communicated poorly with the public and did not have the full faith of the board. A superintendent can't run a school system that way. The board did the right thing; it's best that he go.

But as much scrutiny as has been leveled at Bartlett over the past 10 days also must be leveled at the board that hired him. When selecting a new superintendent four years ago, the board refused to let the business community, the parents, the teachers or the press have any involvement.

The day his hiring was announced, a friend - who was working for Bartlett's hometown newspaper at the time - called and asked if I had any idea of the superintendent's poor track record. With only a couple phone calls our reporters had the whole story.

"He's very much a top-down, I'll-tell-you-what-to-do, Hitler-type, commander-in-chief," Karen Trear, president of the Montgomery County Teachers Association told Herald-Mail reporter Laura Ernde in 1997. Get that? In 1997.

Bartlett (does this sound familiar?) couldn't get along with school systems he'd served in the past, received poor reports from school employees and the public and had left his post prematurely.

The Washington County Board of Education paid a consultant $4,800 to ostensibly do a background check on its new hire, and he gave Bartlett a clean bill of health. For $4,800 of your tax money, he failed to discover what the newspaper would have dug up for free with a few phone calls.

This is something of a new board, and let's hope it has learned these two points:

First, the benefits of an open search for a new superintendent should be clear. This in no way usurps the board's power. The board narrows the field, and its authority to select the winner is absolute. But there is no reason why the board should hide its finalists from teachers, parents and students unless it fears the candidates themselves have something to hide. Secrecy, in the public arena, is bad business.

This new board ran Bartlett out of office in secret, which is not an auspicious beginning. But that's over and done with. Several members are new and learning on the job.

A second point is that the board - and this hinges on the first - should listen to its teachers. A month after Bartlett was on the job I was getting correspondence from teachers saying he was trouble.

At first this could have been chalked up to the disgruntled employee syndrome. But soon it was loud and clear and correct. The board had made a mistake. So in its upcoming search, the board would be silly not to include teachers in the process.

They are the backbone of the educational process and without their support a new candidate is bound to fail. The board doesn't have to pick their top choice, but at least it should get an inkling whether the man or woman they tab is a person whom the teachers are bound to respect.

Pay scales are always brought up as a reason teachers leave this county. But pay scales are nothing compared to the desire of a teacher for the freedom to teach our children in the most productive way that he or she sees fit. The best thing we can hope for our kids is to attract the best teachers, and then let them do their jobs with minimal interference and distraction.

All the teachers I know have one thing in common. They love the children. The new board of education would do well by returning that love and allowing the public to help choose a new superintendent we can all feel comfortable with.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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