Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sumter still churning, 'right-sizing,' changing

Ask Jay Schwedler, president and CEO of the Sumter Development Board, how his community earned accolades recently from Southern Business & Development magazine’s annual Top 10 issue, and he'll tell you "good things start with bold, smart leadership."

“Every single one of these recognitions happened because leaders got together and made something positive happen,” he said. “Good things rarely just happen at random. Instead, they are almost always the results of visionary leadership, bold decisions and massive investments of time and resources.”

Spoken like a man who understands the value of investing in public education.

Schwedler, and all of Sumter, has reason to celebrate: America's 3rd Army has made Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base its new home, the nation's major tire manufacturers are investing millions in the region, and the Chinese candy manufacturer Au'Some has chosen to open a new candy plant in Sumter.

Yes, years of effort to improve Sumter's economic development seem to be paying off.

But while we accentuate the positive, let's not completely ignore that not everyone is getting to share in the glow of all this enhancement. Recent news from Sumter reveals that more waves of less-than-happy change are crashing on some veteran educators' shores, as the board has approved a plan to shuffle principals from school to school.

As surprises go, this one isn't that great; it may reflect a basic tenet of the Broad Foundation's training of superintendents. Parents in Seattle, Washington, discovered this the hard way. At least one parent-blogger noticed "the constant churn of principal assignments" under the leadership of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who has since vacated Seattle and landed in Broward County, Florida. (Goodloe-Johnson got to Seattle in the first place, let's recall, after leaving Charleston.)

19. She moved or replaced nearly a third of the district’s principals in less than year, in an unprecedented amount of upheaval, most often without allowing any community input. This has further disenfranchised parents and school communities.

Blogger Jim Schutze predicted the same thing when his local school district in Dallas, Texas, hired a Broad superintendent.

One trend is consistent. The BSA supers, who are often former military, come into districts with a mission to kick ass and take names. In some districts, the results have been brutal.
At the very least, one trend is unmistakable and maybe even inescapable when a BSA grad shows up to be your new super. There will be blood.

Seattle, Dallas, San Diego, New York, New Orleans, Raleigh, Charlotte, Sumter.

I suppose the management principle behind the principal shuffle is the power of uncertainty. Keep your subordinates uncertain of their professional safety, security and stability within their system, and they're more likely to gravitate toward -- and defer to, and commit their loyalty to -- the one thing that seems immovable, the superintendent in the system's center.

Such churn sacrifices the stability that comes with building relationships at the school level, with parents and classroom educators, but that sort of stability seems low on the Broad list of priorities.

Indeed, there seems to have been a good bit of churn since mid-winter, when parents and educators mobilized to seek answers to their questions and concerns. Satisfactory answers never came -- district leaders preferred to speak to the local paper rather than to parents and educators in public meetings, where easy answers might be challenged and more probing questions might follow -- but the organization created by parents and educators continues to meet, which is a good thing. When parents and educators organize, children win.

Those outside the region should be reminded that Sumter County's two former school districts merged last year -- some say too quickly -- and neither of the former districts' superintendents was brought forward to lead the merged district. So a new superintendent was sought and hired in the midst of the change. There clearly wasn't unity around that set of decisions. One year ago this week, the board entertained and adopted a strange resolution "to extend support, courtesy and expertise" to the new superintendent.

The vote wasn't unanimous, according to the Sumter Item.

Six members of the Sumter School District 17 Board of Trustees voted Monday to "extend support, courtesy and expertise to Mr. Randolph P. Bynum, superintendent for the Sumter School District."

The Rev. Isaac Johnson was the one abstention with Chairman Greg Simonson, Vice Chairwoman Leola McFadden, Frank Ladson, Ron Bridges, Doug Mathis and Dewitt Walker Jr. voting in favor of the motion.

"Why would you not want to show some kind of good faith?" asked Maj. John Pringle, the Shaw Air Force Base representative.

Johnson said he thinks the board has by passing the resolution.

"My concern is not relative toward the support of the new board or the new superintendent but with the resolution itself," he said.

"But what they were asking was for us to sign a document saying we are doing all we can," Pringle said.

Even though Pringle is a nonvoting member of the board, should the resolution have passed unanimously, he and Superintendent Zona Jefferson would have joined the trustees in signing the document.

Johnson said he feels the board is doing all it can to support the new superintendent.

"If we're doing that, I don't understand why you have a problem signing a document saying we are," Pringle said.

"I do," Johnson said. "A point of clarity, not supporting the resolution does not mean you do not support the new board or new superintendent," he noted before the vote.

That was a year ago, water under the bridge.

Fast forward several months.

Combining the staffs of two school districts couldn't be easy, even under optimum circumstances, but mining the talent of those staffs to find answers and resolutions might have been the common-sense strategy of any great leader. When the effective long-time principal of Sumter High School announced his retirement, the question circulating through the community focused on which principal might move up. In the new merged district, Sumter has a wealth of administrative talent; there are plenty of candidates to choose from. The possibilities were exciting.

The question was answered in the March 28 edition of the Item:

By a unanimous vote Monday, the Sumter School District Board of Trustees accepted Superintendent Randolph Bynum's personnel report which included the recommendation of Sterling B. Harris, currently principal of Cross High School in Berkeley County. His name was released Tuesday.
Bynum said Harris would be paid similarly to the other high school principals in the district, which is about $100,000 annually.
While Cross High has 380 students and Sumter High has 2,309, Bynum noted Harris' experience as a principal in Fairfield County and his assistant principalship at Lower Richland High School, both large schools, means he is equipped for the job at Sumter High. He will also have seven assistant principals to help him out, Bynum said.

Seven assistant principals, and none of them qualified to assume the role of principal?

The superintendent told the Item,

We're not looking for managers or operational people. We're looking for people who are instructional leaders who can manage and operate.

One might assume that across the expanse of Sumter County, there existed no such instructional leaders who could also manage and operate. Perhaps such a person could only be found in Berkeley County. And perhaps hiring a person from outside Sumter County sends a message to Sumter's own school administrators.

The Item did say that the position drew applicants from within the district:

In January, Bynum notified the school board about Dingle leaving. For the entire month of February, the position was posted, and the first week of March, human resources screened more than 20 applicants, Bynum said.

Then they were passed to the superintendent who narrowed the list to six candidates to interview, four from inside Sumter School District and two from outside the district but still in the state of South Carolina. Interviews were conducted March 14 by a panel of three district office officials all with prior principal experience and with Bynum sitting in on the interviews.

"My role was primarily to observe the interview, but if during the course of an interview the candidate said something I wanted to follow up on, of course I did follow up questions," Bynum said.

News of the Sumter appointment was overshadowed, however, by the announcement that the district faces a $5.4 million budget deficit ahead of the next fiscal year.

Chief Financial Officer Steve Mann gave a PowerPoint presentation giving historical budget information, focusing on some places of concern for the upcoming budget year and offering a couple of options.

The 2011-12 general fund budget for Sumter School District was created by the former Sumter School Districts 2 and 17. Each district created budgets separately, and then the document was merged and presented to the Sumter School District for approval.

In the current fiscal year, there is a $3.2 million deficit that was addressed with money from the fund balance. The reduction in base-student cost from the anticipated $1,959 to $1,880 caused a $1.64 million deficit. Instituting the four furlough days for teachers and eight for administrators saved the district $1,377,920 and keeping the teacher supply checks in the general fund budget saved the district $254,000, according to the presentation.

It's a sad day when a public entity whose purpose is to provide quality public education to children opts to save money by furloughing instructors and withholding state supply funds from classrooms.

Will that be the new norm for Sumter?

Given what they heard Tuesday, Bynum asked trustees to review the budget priorities they’d set after surveying various stakeholder groups and see if their opinions had changed on anything. The current 2012-13 budget priorities the board decided on are to reduce class size, reduce or eliminate furlough days, protect academic and athletic programs, sufficient staffing across the district and restore teacher supply checks.

Have to wait and see.

The Item reported in late March that the district was taking a scattershot approach to resolving its twin challenges of the budget deficit and consolidating two district staffs. The "reorganization" included "elimination of eight positions, the merger of duties for six positions, an adjustment of service time for 13 positions and reclassification of 21 positions."

What was it that the Dallas parent-blogger wrote? "There will be blood"?

Robert Hutchens, chief operations officer, said Thursday that when the former Sumter School Districts 2 and 17 consolidated, there was no overriding plan on how to staff the district. As the new district began operating, it became apparent how various departments function and the staff began asking, "Is there a better way," Hutchens said.
Hutchens said as positions were eliminated, those duties were distributed to others, and sometimes titles changed.

- Teaching and Learning Division and Curriculum and Accountability Division: four positions were merged to form two - the two assistant superintendents and the directors of standardized assessment and director of curriculum; five positions were reclassified "either up or down depending on responsibilities," Hutchens said; one position, coordinator of professional development, was eliminated; and service time was adjusted for five positions.

- Finance Division: two positions eliminated - internal auditor and co-director of food services; reclassified one position - purchasing coordinator; and redistributed the responsibilities of three positions - payroll manager, accounts payable manager and director of business services.

- Federal and External Programs Division: four positions were eliminated - lead teacher of specialized programs, coordinator of specialized programs and two psychologists; the coordinator for student discipline was eliminated and a director for student discipline services was created; and two people were reclassified to do jobs in two programs - response to intervention and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

- Operation Division: eliminated two positions - director of custodial services and co-director of transportation; and combined director of maintenance and ground with director of custodial services to create executive director of facilities.

Such a radical overhaul of personnel after-the-fact is bound to be messy, but ultimately, there are positions to be filled, and newly-unemployed but expert and veteran specialists to fill them. Will the former employees be given any credit in the new hiring process?

"Some folks will have to reapply, but that's all part of the process," Hutchens said. "We have some great candidates for some of those jobs. Certainly we have some up and coming administrators we're looking very hard at."

That's not very reassuring. There were some "up and coming administrators" from inside the system who applied to be principal at Sumter High School.

Perhaps Berkeley County has some administrators to spare for these new positions. Which would open up positions in Berkeley County for veteran specialists from Sumter, come to think of it -- and clearly, I'm not the only one thinking of that outcome:

Some people may choose to leave the district for other jobs, which will create other openings to fill, he said.

"Paramount in all of this as an employee of the district, your work assignment is based on the needs of the district and not on personal preference per se," Bynum said. "If we can align the two, that's perfect, but the needs of the district to best serve the students must be met."

Take this year, for example: The needs of the district to best serve the students included furloughing personnel and withholding supply funds -- and now, cutting the pay of Sumter's most experienced instructors.

It's a perfect illustration of why we need instructional leaders who can manage and operate; it's a tricky business.

Sumter School District, as another cost-saving measure to try to balance the 2012-13 budget, is changing how it hires and pays retirees who wish to return to work.
According to the changes announced Tuesday, all new and returning retirees presently employed by Sumter School District are eligible to apply for employment for the subsequent school year.

Uh-oh. We can see how this is going to end.

In order to recommend an interested working retiree for initial or continued employment, the principal or district office supervisor must submit specific written justification, the release states.

Question: How many Teach for America -- what I call "Teach for A While" -- recruits presently work in Sumter County? For those unfamiliar, Teach for A While burnishes the resumes of some graduates of America's Ivy League universities by giving them assignments in poor, rural school districts for a three-year tour, like the Peace Corps, at first-year teacher salaries. It isn't necessary for them to be education majors or even certified teachers; Teach for A While gives them a five-week boot camp in Arizona, and the state of South Carolina accepts them as "highly-qualified" so we don't violate No Child Left Behind. (Yes, it's just that easy to be classified "highly qualified." Five weeks, and a stamp of approval from the State Board of Education.)

It's a good deal like the Broad Superintendents Academy, with its 10-week boot camp for superintendents-to-be.

I ask about the number of TFA recruits operating in Sumter because, if retired educators who return to the classroom prove to be too costly, I predict that those transient TFA recruits will be judged somewhat more attractive to the bottom line.

Consider these veteran educators: Reliant on their meager state retirement benefits to make ends meet, they find it necessary to keep working as long as their health allows, until a budget crunch threatens even that possibility. What are their options? Accept something akin to minimum wage -- or be replaced by a Teach for A While recruit.

According to board policy, the decision to employ or re-employ working retirees as teachers, administrators or support staff members is within the prerogative of the superintendent. All new and returning retirees are at-will employees with year-to-year employment agreements and will be paid at step zero level on the pay schedule for the position in which they are re-employed, the release states.

Step zero: the barest minimum in their category, with no professional rights.

This new procedure will affect about 130 people across the district including administrators, principals, assistant principals, teachers, custodians and food service personnel, he said.
Decisions by the superintendent regarding the initial employment or continued employment of a working retiree are final and non-grievable.

That's 130 professionals in middle-age, likely to be replaced by cheaper, less-experienced Ivy Leaguers collecting notes to publish a book when they rejoin the real world.

On the bright side, Sumter's new tire and candy plants will likely be hiring soon. Subsistence wages, sure. At-will employment without any rights, yes. Inflexible hours dictated by the factory supervisor. But where are these educators going to go? They can't all go to fill vacancies in Berkeley County, can they?

The words of the Dallas parent-blogger keep coming back to my mind: There will be blood.

But the hits keep coming. Sumter has a new athletics director...

David Wright will no longer be the athletic director for the Sumter School District after its initial year of existence due to a staff restructuring, and will now be the principal at Wilder Elementary School. Wright's replacement beginning in the 2012-13 school year will be Rick Avins, who has been the principal at Alice Drive Middle School the past five years.
Superintendent Randolph E. Bynum said the changes for Wright and Avins had nothing to do with any deficiencies either have had in their current positions.

...and Sumter's principals are being uprooted and planted in different places for next year:

According to an accompanying letter from Superintendent Randolph D. Bynum Sr., 77 percent of the positions filled at the district level were internal hires, and the principal hires and reassignments involved personnel already working in Sumter School District.

"I have made a commitment to the community and employees of the district that the vast majority of vacancies will be filled from within the district," Bynum said. "This validates what I've been saying - that at least 70 percent of vacancies in leadership should be filled internally. We have a lot of talent in the district.

Well, sure, unless Berkeley County has an extra instructional leader who can manage and operate. When one is looking for instructional leaders to take the helm of the district's crown jewel, a school with seven capable assistant principals, one need look no further than Berkeley County.

(However), I don't want to exclude talented people seeking a position in the district. They can bring new ideas and a different lens. I think it's a compliment when talented people seek employment with Sumter School District.

"What I was aiming to do with these (principal) appointments and moves is to give the leadership here opportunity to work at different levels. Principals working at multiple levels enhances and strengthens the district. They will be the district leaders of the future."

I recommend pausing to absorb that sentiment, and to reflect upon the past year or two as we absorb it.

And now let's reflect upon a pricklier aspect of this churn of administrative talent.

Chairman Larry Addison agreed.

"We wanted to utilize their experience and diversity," he said. "We think their individual skill sets and the infusion of new talent may address some of the challenges those schools are facing. It was discussed with the individuals that are affected. I think they feel it is good for the district, and they are looking forward to the challenge."

As for some names missing from the list, the superintendent said not all approved positions have been filled.

"May 14 we'll have another recommendation for the school board," Bynum said.

Which means some talented administrative leaders are presently twisting in the wind, contemplating their career options in Sumter... or elsewhere. Could it be that not everyone has sung from the same hymnal this year? Been a little pitchy, or off-key? Being a principled principal is sometimes difficult. It's not just a matter of being an effective instructional leader. There are all sorts of tertiary considerations, lines to be toed. Failure to toe could mean a talented and effective instructional leader may find himself "right-sized."

"With the consolidation, we realized there would be many challenges," Addison said. "One of those challenges was going to be the budget. A large part of the budget is staffing. Several months ago, Mr. Bynum gave us ideas and plans about right-sizing the district. Due to consolidation, we had some duplicated positions, (and) in some areas we combined positions. So this report is a reflection of that."

At present, the roster of the saved and anointed includes the following plethora of chiefs, directors, executive directors (what, exactly, is the difference between a director and an executive director, in a rural school district office?), coordinators and portable principals, as delivered to the Item.

District Level

- Chief academic officer, Lisa Norman
- Executive director of curriculum and accountability, Stella Hall
- Chief of schools, Cassandra Dixon
- Executive director of schools, Cornelius Leach
- Director of teaching and learning, David Trombly
- Director of early learning, Libby DuBose
- Director of athletics, Rick Avins
- Chief of student support services, Henrietta Green
- Executive director of federal and external programs, Crystal Lottig
- Director of student discipline services, Anthonese Gamble
- Director of student support services, Margaret Hutchens
- Chief finance officer, Steve Mann
- Director of food services, Leon Williams
- Chief operations officer, Robert Hutchens
- Executive director of facilities, Allen Johnson
- Coordinator of custodial services, John Feeney
- Director of transportation services, Cyndi McLeod-Green
- Coordinator of transportation services, Eric Ramsey

- Alice Drive Middle, Jeannie Pressley, currently Cherryvale Elementary principal
- Furman Middle, Maria Newton-Ta'Bon, currently principal at Wilder Elementary
- Hillcrest Middle, Tarsha Staggers, currently assistant principal at Ebenezer Middle
- Cherryvale Elementary, Robert Barth, currently principal at Hillcrest Middle
- High Hills Elementary, Maggie Wright, currently director of standardized assessment
- Manchester Elementary, Joan Tye, currently assistant principal at Shaw Heights Elementary
- Shaw Heights Elementary, Melissa Morris, currently Willow Drive Elementary principal
- Wilder Elementary, David Wright, currently athletic director
- Willow Drive Elementary, Liz Compton, currently principal of High Hills and Shaw Heights


  1. I would really be interested to know what credentials Rick Avins has to be picked as Director of Athletics. I remember him from Alice Drive Middle and really have a problem seeing him in that role. These changes are crazy! I'm just wondering what the board needs to see before they realize they have been snookered!

    Discipline is a real issue at the schools now. Kids are being allowed to come back school after pretty much any offense. This is sending out a horrible message to the kids! Pretty soon this is going to turn the schools into violent places where no one will want to willingly send their children!


  2. WOW ... facts ... stranger than fiction! Great stuff herein. Everyone in Sumter keep your eyes open and keep the dialogue going!

  3. Notice there is yet another Atlanta "refugee" being imported into the district, at a time when veterans are being axed? Crystal Lottig. WTH is going on? Classes next year are going to be far larger as the superintendent seeks to cram every student in the class that's allowed by law. Teachers are in total despair now, with no help and in fear of their livelihood.

  4. I am very disappointed in the changes in the "Sumter School District". I have seen programs cut, successful programs have had the directors forced to resign, people appointed to run certain programs that ARE NOT COMPETENT to run the programs. I forsee alot of excellent teachers and other staff leaving because of "stupid" budget cuts. Its funny how the superintendent feels that certain salaries and postions can be cut, but yet, he has a HUGE salary. I guess he has to make sure he keeps his job, and benefits. A lot of full time positions were made part time. That means ladies who worked in a position with a program for 10 plus years full time, were told that they are now part time....loss of benefits, loss of pay. That is rediculus. If the Sumter School District 17 could afford to keep these positions, why can't the new combined district do the same?

  5. I would like to know how moving Mr. Feeney from principal of Furman Middle School to coordinator of custodial services is for the betterment of the children in the district. Test scores have gone up and discipline and expulsion have gone down with Mr. Feeney. It appears that moving him to coordinator of custodial services is doing the school district a big injustice and such a waste of his education, knowledge and experence. This makes no sense to totally remove him from the school altogether.

  6. Sumter has built learning communities over many years, and these communities are treasures. The administrators and teachers have built relationships with students and their parents. Parents and staff are expert at choosing teachers whose teaching styles match a student's learning style because they know the teachers. Principals and staff know and respect each other after years of working together. There is no "old boy system," as is apparently the excuse being circulated for destroying these communities. There has been nurturing, testing, growth, and ongoing discussion in the schools before this year. Be careful, Sumter. Go back and read George Orwell to understand what is unfolding in our community.