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VOL. 129 | NO. 123 | Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hopson Contract Extension Represents Reform Mandate

By Bill Dries

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Public school superintendents in Tennessee are not elected in a popular vote anymore. They are appointed by school boards – the only hiring decision school boards make.


So when the Shelby County Schools board voted 6-0 Monday, June 23, to extend the three-year contract of superintendent Dorsey Hopson through June 2018, it was a mandate by the board for the student achievement gains Hopson and the board have set as goals.

Those goals will be marked by the progress the class of 2025 makes between now and graduation day.

It was also a confirmation that the seven-member school board believes those goals and the plan to meet them easily could be sidetracked in the critical and formative years of the specific plan to achieve the goals with a change in leadership at the top.

“We want someone who is going to be here for a while,” school board member Shante Avant said after Monday’s decision. “All of those aspects of where we’ve gone as a district, he’s proven to be the leader that can lead us to a place of calm, consent, of unity. I think he has proven he has the skills needed.”

The goals include moving from a quarter of third graders reading at grade level to all third graders reading at grade level. Hopson and the school board have also set a goal of having 80 percent of last year’s first graders ready for college or career by the time they prepare to graduate in 2025.

While Hopson has more time to pursue those specific reforms, the school board will be changing.

The school board vote Monday was the latest the board could vote to extend the contract in advance of the August school board elections. State law forbids a contract extension by school boards 45 days before such elections and 30 days after.

The current seven-member board goes to nine members with the new term of office that begins Sept. 1. The nine-member board will have at least four new members with three incumbents seeking re-election and the positions of two incumbents not on the ballot this year.

The school board evaluations of Hopson’s performance across seven categories and 20 general questions about performance were “extremely strong,” according to Henry Evans of the Centre Group, the human resources consulting firm hired to coordinate the evaluation.

In five of the seven categories, Hopson was rated by the board as performing “above expectations.”

Areas of concern for the board were in filling positions in his cabinet – notably the position of chief academic officer – technology improvements, staff development and the timely presentation of proposals.

But some board members said their concerns in those areas were a reflection of the rapid changes in public education that continue with Hopson becoming superintendent just a few months before the opening of the only school year of the merged countywide system and the coming academic year in which Shelby County will have seven public school systems.

Five of the six suburban systems to debut in August are being led by educators who were once part of Shelby County Schools and in some cases were in the upper ranks of the school system.

Hopson’s base pay remains the same at $269,000 a year.

The reviews from the six citizens who spoke before the board vote were more mixed than those of the school board.

For Hopson’s critics, the most common theme was that he is not an educator, and some were critical of school closings, outsourcing of schools jobs and jobs lost as the schools system becomes smaller with the demerger in August.

But Veronica Collins said Hopson’s experience with the merger and demerger, and the goals he and the board have set for student achievement gains, made the case for extending his contract.

“We’re in the business of educating children, not of making people who work for the school system happy,” she said.

Valerie Griffith gave Hopson credit for managing the details of the schools merger and demerger because of his training as an attorney but argued an educator is needed.

“Those were legal issues,” she said. “This is not a John Grisham movie.”

“We kid ourselves if we think all we need is an educator,” school board member Teresa Jones said of the issue.

School board member David Reaves said the school system needs continuity and a leader familiar with the community and with what has happened in the last four years in public education.

“We have had educators from outside this area who failed this school system,” he said. “But also we’ve had lots of parents who have failed this school system.”

Hopson said the extension signals the school district is committed to the student achievement goals.

“I think this signals to people, particularly outside Memphis, that we’re going to be here for a while,” he said.

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