After a contentious debate of more than 25 minutes, the Muscogee County School Board voted 5-3-1 to approve an outside candidate to be the new student services chief, one of 12 positions on superintendent David Lewis’ cabinet.
Angela Vickers, the supervisor of educational leadership development for the School District of Hillsborough County, Fla., replaces the retired Melvin Blackwell, who was the Muscogee County School District’s student services chief for the past six years.
Voting yes were board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, vice chairwoman and county-wide representative Kia Chambers, Naomi Buckner of District 4, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Cathy Williams of District 7.
Voting no were John Thomas of District 2, Laurie McRae of District 5 and Frank Myers of District 8. Vanessa Jackson of District 3 abstained.
The objections were based on three main issues:
▪ Whether an outside candidate should be hired over an internal candidate.
▪ Vickers’ incomplete resume, which was submitted three times after board members’ questions prompted two updated versions.
▪ Whether board members are even allowed to vote against such a recommendation from the superintendent.
Lewis said during last week’s work session that he recommended Vickers among more than 30 applicants and after interviewing three of them, including one internal candidate.
Thomas said his objection isn’t anything against Vickers but philosophically against hiring someone from outside MCSD.
“When you bring someone in from outside and hire them over those people who are already here, you’re sending them a very clear message,” Thomas said. “The message is, ‘You’re not good enough.’ … In a lot of cases, these people are asked to train their new bosses, so you add insult to injury.”
Williams said hiring an outside candidate “is not a reflection on the employees that are in the system right now. We have some great people here, but our superintendent has decided to bring a recommendation who he feels is the best person for this job at this time, and our role is to support that or not through our vote, but I just want to remind board members of our code of ethics that says we will not undermine the authority of the superintendent when it comes to hiring, transferring or dismissing. In other parts of this state and country, they would call that micromanaging.”
Green insisted the superintendent must have the freedom to “build his own team. … We have to stay in our lane, and our lane is to evaluate him based on the results and the performances that he and his team deliver.”
Lewis acknowledged “this is a sensitive issue,” but he contended, “Resumes get you in the door; interviews and reference checks get you the job.” He also noted large companies in Columbus, such as Aflac and TSYS, have no problem hiring “the best personnel” from outside this community.
In the four years since the board hired him from Polk County, Fla., where he was an associate superintendent, he has made approximately 100 appointments, 80 of which were internal candidates, Lewis said. “I think that’s a reasonable ratio,” he said.
Lewis added that he appreciates the board’s questions, “but I also appreciate those of you who have provided the confidence in me to bring in the very best people we can find.”
Buckner said, “We do have people in the district who could be qualified for this job. However, it is not my position to recommend; that’s the position of the superintendent.”
Myers declared the board is “in the middle of a crisis” after it, in a split vote last month, rejected Lewis’ recommendation to hire Camelot Education, a private, for-profit company based in Austin, Texas, to run three alternative education programs for $6.4 million annually. Overseeing alternative education is among the responsibilities of MCSD’s students services chief.
“The idea that we would be violating a code of ethics by exercising our duties under the law is just preposterous,” Myers said. “If it undermines the authority of the superintendent to have a discussion of the appointment that he makes, and it’s a recommendation, then why does the law require that we vote and approve the nominee? … Debate, friends, is not micromanaging; debate is part of the democratic process.”
As for Vickers submitting three versions of her resume, Myers said, “The first resume that was submitted would not get you in the door at Aflac and TSYS, and that was the resume that Dr. Lewis used to make the recommendation to hire Dr. Vickers. … We’ve got to develop talent from within.”
Chambers suggested the board should determine whether the process was fair, whether the superintendent followed policy and whether the recommended candidate is qualified. The answer to those questions is yes, she determined. She also noted the odds were in favor of Lewis recommending an outside candidate anyway because 28 outside candidates applied, compared to six internal candidates. “To me, that put a different light on local. … So that didn’t bother me as much.”
Cantrell compared this debate to the “train wreck” five years ago, when a bloc on the board “conspired” to vote against a slate of seven principal hires recommended by then-superintendent Susan Andrews. Cantrell reminded Myers that he came up with the campaign to “Boot the Board” to oust the members who voted against those principals.
Myers responded with this warning: “I’m not sure, Mr. Cantrell, you’ve seen the last of ‘Boot the Board.’”
McRae said she has confidence in the superintendent, but “for reasons I respectfully discussed privately with Dr. Lewis, I expressed that I will not be able to support this appointment. Discipline and alternative education are critical issues for our district, and I do feel like the person who is going to take this on needs a higher level of experience in these areas. … It is nothing personal. I would greatly welcome (Vickers) in some other capacity.”
Jackson also said she shared her concerns with Lewis.
“I’m not impressed that (Vickers) is ready to serve Muscogee County in that capacity.”