In style and substance, Rod Hinton has boosted the Phenix City Public Schools.
Three-and-a-half months ago, the native son answered the school board's call and came out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent.
The system was in crisis. The seven-member board had unanimously voted in a called meeting Nov. 26 to put Larry DiChiara on administrative leave and try to buy out the 4½ years left on the superintendent's contract, which is expected to cost more than $750,000.
The board refused to publicly explain its reason, DiChiara filed a lawsuit for breach of contract, and a judge ordered the two sides into mediation.
While the dispute remains unresolved, this much is clear from folks in the system: Hinton's mix of casual charm and sophisticated thinking has lessened their tension and lifted their spirits.
"You could put the guy in any room, and he would be at home," said Joe Blevins, the school system's operations chief. "He would fit in at a country music concert or a posh ballroom."
Hinton, 66, worked 16 years in the school system as a history teacher, central office administrator and principal of Ridgecrest Elementary and Central High. He left education in 1984 to work across the Chattahoochee River in Columbus for the W.C. Bradley Co., where he became vice president of corporate human resources, CEO of The Game division and a board member. In 1993, he joined Russell Athletics as vice president of licensing products. He eventually became chief operating officer and general manager of Jordan Outdoor Products, aka Realtree, before retiring in 2010.
Hinton eagerly allowed the Ledger-Enquirer access to the school system's staff and documents, but he adamantly declined to be interviewed for this story. He wants the focus to be on "the very impactful changes our people are making happen."
Through perspectives from employees, however, an unavoidable fact emerged: Hinton has been at the heart of the changes.
Exhibit 1A is the Feb. 20 board meeting that became part pep rally and part revival after board vice present Kelvin Redd asked Hinton how he would assess the school system. More than a half hour later, staff around the room had chimed in with their cheers and testimonies about their renewed teamwork and faith in the system.
During his school visits, Hinton was alarmed to hear teachers frustrated with the scripted lesson plans that required them to follow the textbook at a certain pace without time for review. They also felt restrained from being creative and using their professional teaching skills as they saw fit.
Hinton compared such rules to the Pharisees.
"We were more interested in the letter of the law than the intent of our purpose," he said, "which is to educate kids."
So he appointed the system's transportation director, Darrell Seldon, who has a doctorate in education and is a former principal, to chair what he dubbed the Effectiveness Committee. In two six-hour meetings over three weeks, the eight-member group of administrators and instructional coaches produced a spreadsheet of recommendations that turned the teachers' frustrations into a new lease on instruction in K-6 reading and K-12 math.
Now, teachers not only are permitted, but also encouraged to develop their own lesson plans and determine how to achieve the non-negotiable state standards.
Teachers who cried tears of exasperation now cry for joy and hug Hinton's neck.
"We had lost the heart and soul of our teachers," he said, "but we're getting them back."
Jana Sparks, principal of Lakewood Primary School, gave an example during Monday's meeting of the Effectiveness Committee. A teacher emailed her an invitation to visit her classroom and watch her math lesson.
"They were able to play games, incorporate different things," Sparks said. "They had musical instruments in there, but they were doing math. It was the neatest thing. She was so excited, and I had not seen her like that in a long time."
Committee member Jason Stamp, principal of the Central Freshman Academy, said teachers' attitudes in the system had deteriorated.
"When you have veteran teachers frustrated and ready to retire, change needs to be made," Stamp said. "They were just looking at the clock all day."
Vernice McSwain, president of the Phenix City chapter of the Alabama Education Association, said in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer, "The morale of the teachers has risen tremendously."
McSwain, a fourth-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary School, said she has heard fellow teachers exclaim:
"I can really teach again!"
"I can do what I love to do, truly teach the children!"
"Now, I do not have to worry about moving on before each child understands the concept or skill!"
"Dr. Hinton is a godsend," McSwain said. "The leadership he has exhibited since he has become interim superintendent is impeccable. He strives for excellence and greatness."
A pillar of Hinton's leadership style is collaboration. He likes to joke and tell stories to foster camaraderie, but he also is serious about everyone in the room giving their input.
"Dr. Hinton doesn't let you hide," said Lisa Coleman, the system's curriculum and instruction director. "If he asks you a question, you are compelled and responsible to respond to that. So when a decision is made, you have had an opportunity to have a buy-in, an opportunity to have a voice. And that's been extremely different."
Hinton said he has heard teachers and other staff say, "I just feel like I can be trusted and I'm heard and I can breathe, and I'm not fearful that I'm going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing."
And he's doing it one sign at a time. "Better Every Day" logos are plastered all over the school system. Sometimes, that motto manifests in something as mundane as how often the reading coaches come to the central office to use the copier.
"They were spending a half day a week making copies," Hinton said.
After speaking with Coleman, they decided, "Instead of having some of our most qualified teachers and coaches coming down here and copying," Hinton said, "we're going to rearrange some things."
Under his leadership, the administration already has rearranged the hours of operations schools will follow next school year. The adjusted times are based on collaborative input across the system and research advocating later start times for secondary students, Blevins said:
Central High, Central Freshman Academy and South Girard School will conduct classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., instead of 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Phenix City Intermediate and Lakewood Primary will conduct classes from 7:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., instead of 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
All the elementary schools will conduct classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., instead of 8:35 a.m. to 3:50 p.m.
Hinton built trust at all levels in the system by meeting employees where they work. He visits cafeteria staff in the kitchen and bus drivers in the bus barn.
"To know who those employees are who start (the students') day with breakfast, then lunch, thank you," Brindlea Griffin, the system's child nutrition director told Hinton.
"They give great hugs," he replied.
Even the system's numbers person notices Hinton's human touch.
"The culture is changing," said Cheryl Burns, the chief financial officer.
Personnel motivated to communicate with each other helped save the district nearly $60,000, Burns said. Staff quickly collaborated on a narrow window of opportunity to salvage discarded textbooks from Alexander City. That meant two maintenance workers clocked a 12-hour day on a holiday to pick up the books.
"I was just thrilled beyond belief that all those people who worked together to save money in the budget," Burns said. "We're now going to be able to make sure we have enough books and won't be short next year. Kudos to all those people. It was very good teamwork."
Hinton insisted, "It's not that nobody ever worked together here before, but it's a commitment. We're busting some of these silos. All you had to do was say, 'We need to work together' and get out of their way, because what they've done is remarkable."
Effectiveness Committee members sense Hinton has linked his business experience to his educational philosophy. Some of his pet phrases, such as "time on task," "balance points" and "work smarter, not harder," have become part of the school system's lexicon.
Committee member Nicey Eller, a curriculum consultant and retired principal and Lakewood and Westview elementary schools, noted, "He clearly looks at everything from the standpoint of 'Are you using your time in the most effective way?'"
As far as areas needing improvement, Hinton began with the infrastructure.
"There are a lot of things broken in this school system," he said.
He sees too much "waste" in expenses. He supports Central High's request to switch from a seven-period schedule to a modified block schedule, but he is concerned whether the school system can afford the estimated $250,000 to add at least five more teachers necessary for the period and classes the new schedule would create.
"We've got to cut a lot of waste out and reallocate some things and make sure that our focus is on these classrooms," he said.
Hinton also promised personnel changes.
"We've got to make sure we've got the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats," he said. "There's a lot of shuffling we need to do. It's not a popularity contest. It will be a performance contest. We'll make the tough decisions that we'll have to make, but everybody's got a chance."
As a colonel in the Alabama National Guard, Central High principal Tommy Vickers knows leadership. He welcomes Hinton's emphasis on accountability.
"He has made me raise my bar and pull my teachers to a higher standard, and that's a good thing," Vickers said. "That's across the district. I'm glad to have that, and my administrators are being held to a higher standard because I am being held to a higher standard, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you've got a problem with that, you're probably in the wrong business to begin with."
Servant leadership is how Hinton describes it.
"My responsibility is to meet the needs of the people I'm holding accountable, to make them better and serve their needs," he said. "If I serve their needs and make them successful, then that's my job. So, in return, I've taken the accountability level up. Mr. Vickers and a lot of the other principals have pushed it back on me, saying, 'But here's what we need.' And they really haven't come to me with things that weren't on target. So our job is to be servant leaders out of our office back to these people and make sure they can do their jobs and serve these kids."
Carolyn Hemmings, the school system's math coach and Effectiveness Committee member, called Hinton, "a good listener, a very good listener. He is just wise and visionary. He grew up here, his roots are here. He has a passion for Phenix City, and that just comes out in everything he does."
Seldon, the transportation director and Effectiveness Committee chairman, stressed that listening is only half of Hinton's successful equation.
"He actually follows up," Seldon said. "He quickly got this committee in place to start addressing these issues."
Committee member Lanette Holmes, an instructional coach, added, "He didn't want it to be just lip service."
Blevins, the system's operations chief, voiced a concern that others have expressed about what happens after Hinton leaves: "I would challenge the board to make sure that the momentum we have going, that the next person in charge of this is swimming with the stream and keeps this momentum flowing, so we do get better every day."
Board president Brad Baker said in an interview that system employees stop him or contact him to gush about Hinton. They urge the board to try to keep around.
But that's preaching to the choir.
Baker already asked the Alabama State Department of Education whether Hinton could stay beyond his seven-month, $8,000-per-month contract. The board would have more time to hire a superintendent, and Hinton's changes would have more time to take effect.
The department won't grant Hinton another waiver on his expired certification, Baker said, but the board president might suggest the board offer Hinton to be a part-time consultant for the new superintendent.
"He would stay involved two or three days a week," Baker said, "and make sure everything that's been put in place isn't undone."
Regardless, Hinton's successful interim stint has provided board members a model of what to look for in the superintendent they hire, Baker said.
"He's a people person and understands business," Baker said. "An educator is great to have, but you have to have more than a doctorate. You've got to run a business, and the school system is like a business, so you've got to have that leadership quality to mold all of that together."
Hinton summed up his assessment this way:
"It's a very a good school system," he said, "but with an opportunity to be great and better every day. We've got the bones. We've got the people, and that's the most important thing. We've got the people. We've got the dedication. We've got the support. Now, we've got to live up to maximizing all of that."
Hinton praised the school system's solid financial condition and its resources, including the support it receives from the city government and community. He also lauded the board.
"You're not asking for this, and you don't want it, but I know everybody on this board," he told the board members. "You come from very diverse backgrounds. You bring a lot of different things to the party. But you don't get paid, you make very hard decisions unanimously, and I think that should say a lot to the people who've taken shots at you and continue to take shots at you.
"Whether you agree or disagree with your decisions, I've never found a more committed bunch of people, willing to take as much heat as you're taking. And you're taking it because you're doing what's legally right and you're doing it the right way. Sometimes you're portrayed as not wanting to do the right thing for the community. But I appreciate this board, and I think this community should appreciate this board and recognize what they've done."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.