Despite having voted on how to handle the interview process and narrowing down the candidates for the director of schools position to the top three just a week before, the Monroe County Board of Education has changed their minds.

“I've changed my mind and as my mother always said, 'If you don't change your mind, a woman doesn't know her mind,'” said 2nd District's Marsha Standridge.

At the May 14 called meeting, the board voted unanimously to have members go one-by-one in the interviews to ask a minimum of two questions each, instead of submitting questions to comprise a specific list.

But during the Tuesday, May 21, called meeting, after getting some advice from Randall Bennett with the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA), School Board Attorney Doris Matthews advised the board that they might want to have some specific questions to ask all of the remaining five candidates—Phillip Swanson, Russell Harris, Robert Hooper, DeAnna McClendon and Joseph “Joe” Miller.

“I know that you all have voted already, but based on some things that TSBA said and the Fair Labor Act, you might want to think about at least having some of the same questions asked of every candidate,” said Matthews. “Doesn't mean you can't follow up based on their experience or based on the answers to their questions.”

Matthews also noted that it would be hard to keep the questions secret.

“If we have someone come in at 3:30 and someone at 7:30, there might be some time in there where the candidates could watch (the livestream) to see what the questions are,” noted Matthews. “If you're coming in at 3:30, you could be at home watching.”

“That's why I think it's even better not to ask the same questions,” replied 1st District's Faye Green. “I'm not gonna ask Joe Blow the same thing I'm asking Susie Q. So if Joe Blow wants to go and tell Susie Q what I asked him then that's not going to help Susie Q at all because I'm going to ask her a separate set of questions.”

But, TSBA's Bennett also recommended giving the candidates a list of the standard questions ahead of time.

“He said we need at least three to five basic questions to go by,” 3rd District's Jo Cagle told the board. “He said to throw them out there, let the whole public know. That doesn't mean we can't ask other questions. The purpose is, he said, to have some type of standard to go by to see how well they all answer those questions.”

Standridge said by asking some of the same questions to all candidates being interviewed, it could “equalize the playing field.”

“If they know the questions ahead of time, they're going to all prepare to the best of their ability. But if we want to ask somebody about their grant writing experience, or something else on their resume, we can,” she said. “(With an hour) we could have some good dialogue even after we get through those basic questions.”

“On those standard questions, you'd be looking at how they deliver,” Matthews noted.

But Green still had concerns.

“I just know when I've been interviewed, and I'd say most everybody sitting at this table has been interviewed, and I know it wasn't for any job like this—never even been close to interviewing for a job like this; this is a huge job—but I went in cold,” said Green. “I had no idea what they were going to ask me. I was a nervous wreck because I knew my performance depended on whether or not I was going to get hired. That's the way I thought everybody was interviewed.”

“How well they can prepare questions to answer like a robot to us is not impressive to me,” Green continued. “There may be advantages to that, but I just don't see it. I would rather spend our time learning about their experiences and things about them that make them stand out.”

“You can still ask them all that,” responded Cagle.

The recommendations from TSBA and Matthews won out, however, with the board voting unanimously on five standard questions. Chairwoman Sonya Lynn will read the five specific questions and the other members of the board will ask follow-up questions or any other questions that may come up from a candidate's resume or experience.

The following five questions will be asked to all five candidates during interviews:

1. What is your vision for Monroe County Schools and how do you plan on achieving that vision?

2. This year has been somewhat stressful for some employees as we have worked through the transition to a new director. How would you promote positive morale and help employees feel secure and confident moving forward into the new school year?

3. If one of our schools has a significantly low achievement score across the board, what sort of strategy would you implement to improve achievement among the students?

4. What plan or plans would you develop to keep students who have attendance problems from going to homeschooling?

5. Do you understand the BEP formula and how it works? Our fund balance is at a minimum required amount and the next two years may make balancing our budget extremely challenging. How will you approach this process for developing a workable budget?

The interviews with the five candidates will be open to the public and will also be broadcast live on the school system's website ( beginning with the first one at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 29.

In alphabetical order

In addition to the interview process, the board also voted to amend how they will narrow the candidates down from five to the top three.

“I know we've already voted on it, but to me, it seems a little unfair,” said 3rd District's Sharin Freeman. “It's like taking two of our votes away. I just don't think we need to rush this process. We need to get the best director that we can get. When we do that, whoever is number one on that list is going to automatically assume they are going to be the new director. And that may not be the case.”

“I changed my mind on it too,” said Standridge.

“Me too,” added Green. “One person could get four votes and the others just get one. That's not very definitive.”

Freeman suggested the board members write down their top three candidates and sign the paper, then give it to the board secretary Sandra Blair for the votes to be tallied.

“We did that with the architects and this is more important than the architects, in my book,” said Cagle. “We at least ought to give our top three choices.”

First District's John Ridgell said he felt like the candidates should also be listed in alphabetical order when being voted on and announced.

“That way it's going to be more fair to the candidates,” he said.

The board voted unanimously to amend the motion from the May 14 meeting. The board members will now write down their top three candidates in alphabetical order on a signed piece of paper, which will then be given to Blair. Following all votes being received, Blair will tally the votes, list the top three in alphabetical order and read the top three candidates out loud in alphabetical order.

The vote to narrow the candidates down to three will be held on Thursday, June 13 in a special called meeting at 4 p.m. prior to the regular board meeting at 6:30 p.m.

The public will be allowed to meet the top three candidates and ask them questions during a Community Meeting at Sequoyah High School on Monday, June 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

If community members wish to ask questions, they have to be submitted to Matthews at the event for approval. Candidates will be given five minutes to introduce themselves to the public, followed by a question-and-answer session.

A two-year deal

The School Board also debated whether or not a two-year contract was long enough for the new director. At the May 14 called meeting, the board voted 8-1 on a two-year contract deal. Only Ridgell voted against it.

“I don't know if two years is long enough to see if someone is really doing a good job,” admitted Standridge. “The first year is kind of learning and getting your feet wet and the second year, you might be making improvements. I just don't know.”

Ridgell said he voted against a two-year contract because a three-year contract establishes a better trend.

“A three-year contract will give you a learning year, a better year, and then if the third year continues to be better, you give them a three or four-year contract,” he said. “If the third year is not better, then you've got an uh-oh situation.”

“An alternative to that is John Forgety told me that he was hired on a three-year contract and at the end of that contract, if it was renewed, from there on out he had a two-year (extension),” said Green. “It started off with a three-year to get him established. I liked that. I think it gets someone through the initiation process and gives an extra year there in the beginning. But after their feet are planted, they should be pretty good to go for two years.”

Cagle also wondered if the board could do a two-year contract with a built in one-year extension if the new director was doing a good job.

“Then we'd have to decide what we call doing good after two years,” Green said.

But the majority of the board still felt like a two-year contract was the better option.

“I thought we met with Doris (Matthews) about this and that's why we decided on two years,” said Freeman.

Cagle told the board she would like to see them get on an evaluation system that is consistently the same from year-to-year.

“I agree,” said 2nd District's Janie Harrill.

“The problem with last year's evaluation was that we handed it to the director a month before we evaluated him and that's not fair,” noted Ridgell.

Green asked what changed from the previous year, and Standridge said the board added a 20 percent score decided from the overall State Report Card.

“I think what happens in our school system as far as Report Cards go is very important,” said Green.

“I'd like like us to be consistent,” added Cagle.

In the end, the board decided to leave the contract as previously voted on—a two-year deal for the new director.

The Board of Education plans to select the new director of schools on Thursday, June 20 in a special called meeting at 6:30 p.m.

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