Superintendent Lewis mum on 120-day analysis of district

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 23, 2013 

It was a simple reply to an email, but it summed up the start of David Lewis' stint as superintendent of the Muscogee County School District.

Nathan Smith, known more for criticizing the school board than managing a finance company, emailed Lewis the day after the new superintendent's debut meeting in August.

"My concern was basically his perception of me and a few other people in the community that do speak out," Smith said. "I felt we were basically being painted with the same brush, critical of them no matter what. I wanted him to see that's not the case. I really want to be behind him."

Late that night, Lewis sent Smith a reply.

"He told me he is an independent thinker, nobody makes up his mind for him, and he appreciates people in the community being involved," Smith said, then added with a laugh, "Of course, he didn't say, 'Keep coming to meetings and fuss at us.' "

Still, that email showed Smith the new superintendent is committed to communicating with all of his constituents, gets personally involved, and works beyond regular office hours.

"It speaks volumes to me," Smith said. "It may seem small, but it's awesome, and I've spoken to others who've had the same exact experience."

The Ledger-Enquirer asked community activists, leaders and school board members this week to assess Lewis and the impact he has made since the board finished a 16-month search and hired him July 23 from Polk County, Fla. Their response was consistently positive.

Some cautioned that four months could be too early to rate a public official's performance. But they acknowledged that it's plenty of time for initial impressions to be cemented and affect the rest of the tenure, which for superintendents of urban districts, according to a 2010 American Association of School Administrators, averages 3.6 years.

And since his first day on the job, Lewis repeatedly has promised he would take only 120 days to analyze the district and propose possible changes. Today is Day 124.

Lewis declined to be interviewed for this story. He said he publicly would discuss his assessment after he presents it to the board following Thanksgiving.

This much is clear, however: It's crucial for a new superintendent to get off to a good start, said Herb Garrett, who retired in June as executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

"The superintendent is a very, very public figure," he said, "so it's really important to set the tone, that he or she is going to be part of the community and interested, and that community leaders are going to respect him or her. The tone gets set pretty quickly, and it sounds like your new guy has done that."

School board view

Of the nine school board members, four of them were reached this week for comment about Lewis, and they gushed about him.

Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 praised Lewis for showing an inspiring mix of energy and compassion.

"That's not only my assessment but also from those who have come to me, often unsolicited," Varner said. "It goes like this: 'Rob, the board got it right.' Every time they see him speak or meet with him, that's what I hear, and it's very gratifying."

Varner, however, warned against complacency from the lack of complaints.

"He's still in the honeymoon period," he said. "I'm not naïve enough to think as the years progress we won't hear some. It happens to all of us if we hang around long enough."

District 6 representative Mark Cantrell noted Lewis delivered on his promise to visit the district's 58 schools and centers in his first 120 days.

"A lot of people would be just finding the restrooms down the hall by now," Cantrell said. "So that's remarkable. He's really been a go-getter. It excites you to see that, because that means he's excited about the job."

Cathy Williams, the board's lone county-wide representative, said she heard teachers grumble about having to stay after school to meet him, "but you can only do so much in a school day," she said. "I still think everybody has been impressed."

Williams likes the way Lewis takes time to explain his thinking, such as improving training in classroom discipline to decrease out-of-school suspensions.

"It's not 'Just because I say so,' but 'Because, at the end of the day, that's what's best for you,'" she said.

District 4 representative Naomi Buckner said Lewis' vision, no matter what it comprises, has a better chance of succeeding because he is building alliances.

"Once he brings his plan, his changes," she said, "people will tend to accept them better if we're in a position of trust and relationships are established."

Community view

Although the school board hires and fires the superintendent, the representatives are influenced by public opinion, especially from community leaders and activists.

Despite learning they attended rival high schools one year apart in Pinellas County, Fla., Columbus NAACP chapter president Nate Sanderson found common ground when he met Lewis. He appreciates Lewis speaking about bringing the community together and being consistent with his message.

"Too often, you'll see leaders say one thing to one group and something totally different to another constituency," he said.

Sanderson stressed that he still will speak against the superintendent if he feels compelled to do so, but he is willing to give him a chance.

"I think he has done the things that are necessary to build confidence in him," he said. "To me, he seems like a person we can unite behind."

That's the impression Lewis left with Susan Wood, treasurer for the Muscogee County Council of PTAs, after the new superintendent spoke to the council.

"He was very open," she said. "He talked to everyone in the room. He didn't have any notes with him, so it was like he was speaking from the heart."

Meridith Jarrell, chairwoman of the Muscogee County Library Board, has seen Lewis at several social gatherings as well as meetings of the library foundation, Rotary Club and the school board's citizens oversight committee for the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which she now chairs.

"We haven't had a superintendent attend that committee in years," she said. "I think he's the face of education in the community already."

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Lewis brings a "wonderful freshness that all welcome -- it just seems to be a new day." "He too shares my belief that revitalization of blighted and distressed areas integrally involves the school system," she said.

Perhaps the most efficient way Lewis met prominent Columbus players was by joining the Inter-City Leadership Conference that the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce led to another Columbus, the capital of Ohio. Lewis wowed the crowd with his enthusiasm -- what he calls "deliberate urgency" -- and ideas about how to utilize local businesses in the school system.

"He never stopped that whole trip," said Marquette McKnight, president of Media, Marketing and More Inc. and director of the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation. "He just impressed everybody with his personal listening habits and observation habits and his knowledge."

Stepping up

As he transitions from the "new" superintendent to the familiar chief of the school district, McKnight noted, local leaders must transition from wishing him well to asking how they can help him do well.

"We can't just hope he succeeds," she said. "The business community needs to step up."

Lewis' style and substance will attract that help, said Betsy Covington, president of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley.

"I get the sense that he's a very hands-on manager but somebody who also lets people do what they're good at and implement the plans according to their own ideas," said Covington, who will start her one-year chairmanship of the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation in January.

A collaborative approach will be key, and Lewis seems like he can cooperate and foster cooperation from others, said Mike Gaymon, the chamber president. The business community, however, is impatient for improvement in a district that has some of the highest-achieving schools in the state but also some of the lowest.

"I don't think folks expect overnight miracles," Gaymon said, "but they are reaching the point where they understand that to do the same old things and expect different results is insanity. … A lot of folks are looking for transformation."

Frank Myers, a lawyer who was the school board's adviser for the campaign that passed the 2009 SPLOST referendum but lately has spoken against the board, said he wants Lewis to address teachers spending too much of their own money on supplies, being limited to the number of photocopies they can make, and not having enough textbooks for their students.

Myers also said the district is wasting money on projects such as $510,000 for a facility to store records, while some students still attend classes in trailers.

"He has a difficult job if he's going to straighten this stuff out," Myers said.

Possible proposals

Lewis is keeping his plan tightly wrapped, but he has discussed a few ideas with local leaders that might be part of what he proposes to the board, such as:

• Developing a reading program for early grades, boosted by private funding to replace revenue cut from the state budget.

• Focusing not only on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) but adding the arts to create STEAM.

• Appointing a central office administrator to be a liaison between the superintendent and the community in three sectors -- west, east and central -- which would combine the more affluent north side with the lower income south side.

Regardless of what's in the plan, Lewis already has done enough to prompt Smith to reconsider the school choice for his daughter, who will be old enough for pre-kindergarten next year.

"To be quite honest, I was thinking about not putting my child in the public school system because of the wastefulness and my speaking out would make me almost scared for her," he said. "But right now, I am trusting Mr. Lewis."

APPOINTMENT BOOK

According to his secretary, Karen Jones, here are just some of the community leaders David Lewis has met during his first 120 days as superintendent of the Muscogee County School District:

Belva Dorsey, executive director, Enrichment Services Program

Billy Blanchard, president, Columbus Bank & Trust Co.

Anne King, executive director, Midtown Inc.

The Rev. J.H. Flakes III, pastor, Fourth Street Baptist Church

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, editor, Ledger-Enquirer

Wane Hailes, publisher, The Courier

Tim Mescon, president, Columbus State University

John Shinkle, investment adviser

The Rev. Jimmy Elder, pastor, First Baptist Church

John Darr, sheriff, Muscogee County

Greg Countryman, marshal, Muscogee County

Ricky Boren, Columbus Police chief

Marjorie Newman, philanthropist

Rick McKnight, RiverCenter for Performing Arts

Marquette McKnight, Media, Marketing & More

Teresa Tomlinson, Columbus mayor

Isaiah Hugley, Columbus city manager

Calvin Smyre, State representative

William Huff, Columbus businessman

Judy Thomas, Columbus councilor

Brian Sillitto, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce

Tom Helton, Columbus State University

Dan Parker, local real estate broker

Ben Holden, Columbus Scholars

Betsy Covington, Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley

The Rev. Robert Beckum, pastor, St. Luke United Methodist Church

The Rev. Shane Green, pastor, St. Paul United Methodist Church

Col. Michail Huerter, garrison commander, Fort Benning

Marva Reed, Georgia Division of Family and Children Services

Chuck Stark, CEO Columbus Regional Health

Dan Amos, chairman, CEO Aflac

Bennie Newroth, community activist

Gary Jones, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce

Owen Ditchfield, former school board member

Scott Ferguson, director, United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley

Nate Sanderson, president Columbus NAACP branch

Karl Douglass, local real estate broker

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