Richard Hyatt: Finding the next Muscogee County superintendent is no small task

In the small, small world of Bibb Elementary School, Eva Gardner was royalty. John Wells figured that out when the principal paid a visit to his class. Until then, he thought his teacher was the boss, but even to a seventh grader, it was obvious that Miss Eva was in charge.

That changed on the day William Henry Shaw came to Bibb and was introduced to Wells and his classmates. A dignified little man with a poetic vocabulary, he had been superintendent of schools since 1945 -- a job he kept for 28 years. Shaw served as superintendent of Columbus City Schools from 1945-1950 and became superintendent of the Muscogee County School District when city and county schools merged.

"Even my principal treated him as an authority figure," said Wells, who grew up on the narrow streets of Bibb City in the shadow of a cotton mill that offered more than jobs.

That was Wells' first brush with a school superintendent but not his last, though no one then imagined this little boy from a mill village would one day help hire seven top administrators in Muscogee County.

Wells, the lone carryover from the old appointed panel, has been on the Muscogee County School Board for 26 years. He and his colleagues are nearing the end of a tedious process that hopefully will lead to the hiring of a successor to Susan Andrews, who caught everyone off guard by resigning after only three years.

Though he has more experience in this process than anyone, Wells does not take it lightly.

"It's not a small task," he said after a recent closed meeting in which the board culled a list of 22 potential candidates down to four. "I know it's important, and I realize it's a huge responsibility."

This time the board turned to McPherson & Jacobson -- a search firm from Nebraska -- for help. A firm with 21 years of experience, they are currently conducting searches in 11 states.

Wells has seen it done both ways. He was involved in searches conducted by the board and searches in which outside headhunters were hired. Neither is foolproof.

"We've had hits and misses," he admitted. But he sees the advantage of input from outside the board. "We get a more diverse group of candidates."

The first searches

When Shaw said he was stepping down in 1972, the hiring of a superintendent was foreign to a board that had never faced such a dilemma.

Shaw came here from South Carolina to lead the city system. When city and county schools merged in 1950, he moved into the consolidated job. By the time he retired, his imprint was on every administrator, teacher and schoolhouse in town.

Working on their own, the board hired Braxton Nail, a former pro baseball player whose style was the antithesis of Shaw's. The board trusted that the Birmingham, Ala native would restructure a system that had grown stale.

That he did by recruiting a new cabinet of administrators, modernizing the way business was conducted and expanding the local curriculum.

Nail held the job 16 years, until a rainy summer night in 1989 when he used a garden hose to hang himself in his own backyard.

His death reverberated through local schoolhouses for years. Public education was in mourning and without a rudder. Nail's top aide, Bob Bushong, stepped in as interim superintendent, not knowing how many other times he would be asked to fill that void.

Ultimately, the board turned to another administrator that had learned the trade in Mobile.

Jim Burns came from Virginia and with the skill of a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, sold himself as an agent of change.

Some people were enthused. Others waited for him to be clear on just what he intended to change. Burns enjoyed singing in a Barbershop Quartet but harmony didn't always follow him and the board was as confused as anyone else. Some panel members thought Burns was out of control and needed to be reigned in -- or replaced.

That discussion was on the table in October 1992 when Burns was murdered in the doorway of his home in the Historic District.

The case remains unsolved.

Not a simple process

Grief manuals don't offer advice on how an organization can recover from two violent deaths in three short years, but that was what the school system had to do in the aftermath of Burns' stabbing.

Once again, they turned to Bushong. When he succumbed to cancer in 2011, he had served as interim superintendent four different times and spent a year as superintendent. He is the only person to hold the title of Superintendent Emeritus.

In 1994, the board chose a homegrown talent. Jim Buntin caught for the Jordan High baseball team. He was Dr. Buntin, but he still talked like a guy from Beallwood. He was the only person interviewed and had to be one of the most popular hires in the history of the school system.

Buntin is also the answer to a trivia question. He was the first superintendent appointed by the city's first elected school board that took over in January 1994. He was also the last one to sign a contract that called for less than $100,000 a year.

As the former Columbus High principal and assistant superintendent moved into the job, he talked about involving local organizations in public education. He also offered words of caution.

"Education is not an event, but a process. Those who see it as an event, make a speech for the camera and then disappear, while those who see it as a process stay with us over time," Buntin said.

Buntin's honeymoon was brief. By 1996, he tired of fussing with the board and resigned. The Georgia School Board Association was hired to assist in the search and the ultimate choice came from within the family.

Guy Sims had worked in the system since 1967, was the principal of three local elementary schools and had served a stint in the main office. He became superintendent in 1996.

To Sims, the hiring process isn't rocket science.

"Either way you go, you can get a qualified candidate, whether the board does it alone or whether they hire a specialty firm. As long as the board is involved and a good list of candidates is prepared, it will work," Sims said.

The retired educator said getting a mindset early in the process leads to problems. "You can have your mind set so firmly that you don't see things. You overlook the red flags when you do that," he cautioned.

Sims served for five years. He resigned in December 2001 after 36 years in education. "I feel like a 5,000-pound weight has been lifted off my back," he said at the time.

As has been the pattern, he butted heads with board members. That dynamic isn't unique to Muscogee County, and Sims warns that politically charged atmospheres make it more difficult to attract good candidates.

Those situations should not have surprised John Phillips, for he had been a superintendent most of his career. He came here in 1997 from Bartow County in a part of Georgia where politics is a contact sport.

The same Cobb County search firm that brought him to Bartow recruited him here. He was billed as a CEO and that was how he performed -- a sharp contrast to Sims who was always a visible figure in schoolhouses all over town.

Phillips also had conflicts with the board but stayed until 2003. He returned as interim superintendent in 2012; a position he still holds.

His successor as superintendent was Susan Andrews. She wasn't the choice of the search firm, but after a nine-month process, she was a popular choice in the community. She had led Harris County schools, and in 2009 she became the first female superintendent in the 141-year history of the local system.

Board member Pat Hugley Green complained that the selection was taken away from the board. "We started one way and then went another," she said.

When Andrews' relationship with the board splintered, she resigned early this year. The board, with the help of the Omaha firm, is seeking her replacement. Four candidates were interviewed Wednesday during a marathon one-day session.

Finding the right person isn't a simple process for this is not William Henry Shaw's school system. Nor is it Braxton Nail's or Guy Sims'. The responsibilities of the job multiply exponentially every year and so do the burdens.

"We need someone who walks on water," board chair Cathy Williams said recently.

Wells said each board member brings a unique perspective to the process. "I respect that," he said. "This is such an important job. The person we select will have the job of keeping this school district on track."

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net