Haywood School Board misses an opportunity
When the Haywood County School Board announced that it had chosen Trevor Putnam as the system’s new superintendent, I can’t think of a single person who follows education news in this region that was surprised. People were making that call even before Superintendent Bill Nolte announced his relatively sudden November retirement.
What did catch some off guard, though, was the revelation of a “succession plan” that, according to a couple of school board members, had been in place for at least five years. I immediately thought of the now King Charles and his long-reigning mother Elizabeth. Perhaps the school board fancies itself a kind of advisory council, acting benevolently in allowing the outgoing superintendent to anoint his own successor.
Look, here’s wishing Trevor Putnam the utmost success. He’s been straight up and open with the reporters for this newspaper and has proven as accessible as any high-level educator in the region. My wife teaches for Haywood County Schools and I have three grown children who are products of the system. I’ve lived in Haywood County for 30 years, I own a business here and served on the board of the Haywood County Schools Foundation. I have a vested personal and financial interest in this county remaining a place with a well-educated citizenry where people and businesses prosper. A good school system plays a vital role in a community’s reputation and liveability.
Results of statewide standardized test scores show that Haywood schools do well on tests, ranking seventh in results released in the past two weeks. In private conversations, though, one often hears negative comments in the community about morale and the school system’s direction and leadership. There seems to be an obvious disconnect between student testing success and many folks’ negative feelings about the system’s leadership.
So no surprise at Putnam’s appointment; very surprised that an actual succession plan has been around for five years and this was, more or less, pre-ordained. I was also very surprised that the members of the school board chose to not even conduct a search. Some of those on the board have been there for a decade or more, so surely they were politically savvy enough to know they’d take some criticism — can anyone say “good ol’ boy system” — for not even going through the motions.
And perhaps that is where we should lay the blame for the niggling questions about the direction of the Haywood County Schools — squarely at the feet of the elected school board. It made the decision not to spend the time and money — and yes, a search would have cost some of our tax dollars — to see if some brilliant educator from somewhere else in this country might want to lead this school system for a few years. I mean, people are moving here from everywhere, so surely an opening like this would have had some appeal.
This is the same school board that supported Bill Nolte’s knee-jerk decision last school year to pull a racially charged book from an English class instead of encouraging discussions about one of the most sensitive and fraught issues facing this country. For the last several years it seems that the school board has not been leading but instead has just been rubber stamping everything the administration brings before it.
Most successful organizations know that processes are important, that final decisions are stronger when the group follows best practices and uses proven techniques. By foregoing a search, school board members left a lot of Haywood’s citizens questioning their decision-making process and, in fact, did the new superintendent an injustice. Their desire for a local that was a known commodity and for expediency won out over a more open, competitive and formal process.
Say a real search had been conducted and Trevor Putnam rose to the top despite having to compete against applicants from near and far. Some school boards have even gone so far as to include parents or teachers in the selection process, showing that those elected officials truly care about what parents and staff think. If that had occurred and Putnam had won the job, the school board would have quieted many of its critics. Unfortunately, that’s not how this played out. Let’s call it a missed opportunity.
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Succession planning is a process of developing talent to replace executive, leadership or other key employees when they transition to another role, leave the organization, are fired, retire or die. It is relevant to all organizations, from the largest to the smallest, in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. I commend the school system for advance planning like this. Just because the school system had a plan in effect for the last 5 years doesn't mean it wasn't reviewed and/or revised during that time.
I agree that the school board shouldn't rubber stamp everything that the school system proposes, but the board should give great weight to recommendations from administrators and school officials. None of the board members are educators and they're not in the schools and classrooms every day. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood..." I commend the board for having and executing a succession plan.
When hiring from the outside, no matter how extensive the vetting, an organization's risk for choosing the WRONG candidate is higher than when promoting someone from inside whose performance and principles have been observed over a period of time. It's offensive to imply that this is the "good old boy" network at play.
Promoting from within also ensures retention of institutional knowledge. When the BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 — taking 11 lives and spoiling the aquatic ecosystem — many wondered, “Couldn’t this disaster have been prevented?” As entrepreneur and business writer Margaret Heffernan told BBC, a similar explosion had occurred just five years earlier at BP’s Texas City refinery. She notes: “There were exhaustive investigations as to its causes, [but] nobody did very much to encode the memory.”
It’s possible that by properly documenting and sharing the institutional knowledge from the previous accident, the second explosion may have been avoided.
Scott, you shouldn't really be surprised that "There seems to be an obvious disconnect between student testing success and many folks’ negative feelings about the system’s leadership." Many people take great delight in criticizing anything, even if they don't really know much about it. This includes criticism of the Smoky Mountain News, other county newspapers, the health department, the hospital, law enforcement, DSS, the county commissioners, etc. Reference to "many folks' negative feelings" is an ambush tactic without merit. "Many" in not a number. What folks are you referring to? If you want to make that argument, at least be honest enough to say how many and who you are referring to.
Yeah, I don’t support a good ol boy system. And I also don’t support outsiders coming in and thinking they can control things either (see the comments for this piece). Frankly, public school in general sucks! I am praying my boys will home school or private school. I liked Dr. Nolte and thought he was a common sense administrator, unlike Anne Garrett. He might have misspoke (hence the racist comment?) but think about everything that conservative thinkers (particularly WHITE conservative thinkers) are called and no one minds, I think he can be excused a misspeak! Give Putnam a chance and he might surprise you all that still have a dog in this fight. The author of this opinion actually thinks 30 years means deep roots in Haywood County—that’s sweet.
Ask any parent who’s had Putnam as a Principal how he handles bullying. He literally does nothing especially if the bully is a popular athlete. He’s the worst person to put in charge. Bill Nolte is a racist - no wonder he pulled Dear Martin. He thought picking cotton memes was acceptable
Well said, for as many new people moving and living in Haywood County we are still a good O’Boy network. Please remember we have an election coming up shortly to change that good o’boy network. So please get out and vote.