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February 24, 2013

Appointed superintendent back on table

County schools, legislators in talks for local bill

Billy Coleman could be the last school superintendent ever elected in Cullman County.

After spending the past several years talking about the potential benefits of moving Cullman County to an appointed superintendent system, the school board has placed the option back on the table for the current legislative session.

Cullman County is one of approximately 150 school systems left in the nation that still elects its superintendent. Most systems across the country, including Cullman City Schools, have the school board appoint a superintendent to run the day-to-day operations of the system.

The change would have to be made in the state Legislature, so the board recently reached out to the local delegation for support in broaching the topic. State Rep. Mac Buttram and Senator Paul Bussman said they would be willing to introduce any legislation the school board believes is in the best interest of the system.

“If you all as a board unanimously think it is the right thing to do, I’d have no problem moving forward with it,” Bussman said at a recent work session. “If you think its for the good of the kids and the system, I’ll do it.”

If a formal request is made by the board, Buttram said a local bill could likely be passed in the current legislative session.

Proponents say the appointed model opens the position up to a larger pool of qualified candidates, while giving the school board more freedom to retain or fire a superintendent based on merit. A superintendent would be hired on contract for a set number of years, but could be terminated if an issue arose; either for just cause of via a buy-out clause.

Recently elected school board member James Thompson said he is in favor of having an appointed superintendent because it will allow the system to attract quality candidates and compete at a higher academic level.

“There could be someone in our system qualified, but they don’t want to run,” he said. “You may have someone in the next county or the next state who is the best fit for Cullman County ... We have a once in a lifetime chance to get it done now, because we have a superintendent in favor of it.”

Superintendent Coleman said he believes shifting away from an elected system is in the best interest of the system, but noted he would likely not be at the forefront of the campaign because it could seem self-serving.

“I’m all for it and think its a great idea,” he said. “But that’s something that needs to come more from the board. I think it’s courageous on the board’s part.”

If legislation is introduced and passed, the school board would start a search for a new superintendent at the end of Coleman’s term in approximately two years. School systems traditionally contract with a search firm to generate and vet a pool of candidates. The top five candidates are then brought in for public interviews, which allows the board and community members a chance to meet the candidates early in the process.

“I’m glad to hear we could have a search engine to help find candidates,” school board member Chris Carter said. “That way it isn’t a popularity contest.”

Though some constituents may feel like they are losing direct control of the process, school board member Randy Hasenbein said he believes it will merely shift the pressure off the superintendent onto the school board.

“We’re the link to the political part,” he said. “But anytime you have an opportunity to eliminate some of the politics out of education that’s a good thing.”

System employees gave their opinions on the topic at a recent work session, with everyone from principals to central office staff expressing unanimous support.

“The cost of running a campaign dissuades many qualified candidates, and it would open it up to people who are qualified, but might not want to put themselves through a campaign,” federal coordinator Vicky Butler said. “The campaigns are also very distracting, creating rumors and innuendo across the system.”

School board officials say they will discuss the issue further in the coming weeks and could make a formal request to the legislators within the next few months.

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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