The Monroe County Board of Education continues its process for selecting a new director of schools.

After narrowing it down to five top candidates—Phillip Swanson, Russell Harris, Robert Hooper, DeAnna McClendon and Joseph “Joe” Miller—the School Board set to work on comprising a list of questions to ask during interviews on May 29.

During a special called meeting on Tuesday, May 14, the board met to finalize its plans. With four of the candidates present, however, the task was easier said than done.

“I don't think we should discuss the questions since we have some present,” 2nd District's Janie Harrill noted.

Some suggested sending their questions to School Board Attorney Doris Matthews for her to compose the final list of questions, but Matthews had concerns about that.

“It might be easier if you just don't submit questions and you just go around the room and ask your own,” said Matthews.

“I think the same thing,” said 1st District's Faye Green. “Not all of the candidates have the same experience. We can't throw a blanket out there and cover them all. We need to have questions that are specific to each candidate.”

First District board member John Ridgell agreed.

“The resumes will generate some of the questions,” he said.

Jo Cagle, representing the 3rd District, suggested asking all five candidates a few of the same questions to gauge how they feel about certain situations.

“We only have 30 minutes allotted for each person,” reminded Chairwoman Sonya Lynn.

Green said she did not feel like that was enough time.

“We don't need to rush it,” she said. “I don't think we need to have a timer going off.”

“Maybe we can tell candidates their allotted time, but let them know that it might go over,” Cagle suggested.

Second District's Marsha Standridge made a motion to have the board 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. The board agreed unanimously.

The School Board also voted to adjust the interview times to one-hour intervals, beginning at 3:30 p.m. on May 29.

Starting salary

When discussing the salary for the new director of schools, budget concerns came into play.

“I don't think budget-wise we can go any higher as of right now,” said Lynn.

According to the Monroe County Finance Department, Blankenship's starting salary was $95,525.23. His current salary is $103,399.58.

Blankenship's last benefits package included:

  • $6,410.77 (all employees 6.2 percent) Social Security;
  • $10,815.60 (all professional employees 10.46 percent) retirement;
  • $1,499.29 (all employees 1.45 percent) Medicare;
  • $57 ($25,000 policy all employees receive) life insurance;
  • $19,560 (family coverage) medical insurance;
  • 18 vacation days (all 12-month professional employees that have worked 10 years or longer receive);
  • 12 sick days and 2 personal days per year (in accordance with state guidelines for all professional 12-month employees).

Second District's Jason Miller suggested a starting salary of $100,000 with the same benefits package.

“I still would like to see us put some incentives in our director's salary,” said Ridgell, explaining that a director could receive bonuses if the school system met certain criteria throughout the year.

Board members liked the idea, noting that the $3,000 they are removing from the starting salary could be used as the incentive pay.

Ridgell put it in the form of a motion, with the bonus benefit package to be worked out at a later date. The vote passed with eight votes as Cagle passed on the vote.

In a roll call vote, the board also voted 8-1 to set a two-year contract for the new director. Only Ridgell voted against it.

Upcoming important dates

  • 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 School Board will narrow the candidate field down to their top three.

Exactly how to choose the top three, however, sparked some debate at the May 14 meeting.

During the May 9 meeting, it was decided the board would take the five candidates through the interview process then publicly vote on their top candidates by going up to a chart on a whiteboard and ranking the candidates from 1 to 5 (with 5 being the top choice). Each member would repeat the process until all had filled out their numbers, at which point the scores would be tallied and the three with the highest "scores” would move on to the community meeting.

After that meeting, Standridge called Tennessee School Boards Association attorney Ben Torres for advice.

“He suggested that we write our top choice on a piece of paper with our named signed on it,” she said. “Then we hand it to our secretary and she reads each vote aloud and writes it on the whiteboard. This way, no one would know how anyone was voting before we cast our votes.”

Standridge said if a tie occurred, the members could re-vote on the tied names.

“If we all pick the same one, is it over?” laughed Jason Miller.

In a roll call vote to amend Green's motion from the May 9 meeting, Standridge's suggestion passed 5-4. First District's Dewitt Upton and all three School Board representatives from the 3rd District—Sharin Freeman, Cagle and Lynn—voted against it.

“It's a shame that our board can't get together on these decisions to pick a director,” said Lynn following the vote.

“Maybe we can,” replied Standrige.

“We're gonna have to,” said Upton.

  • The public can 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, the questions 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.

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

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