By Missy Wattenbarger
Rows of seats reserved for the public sat empty Tuesday evening as school board officials held a straw vote regarding a director of schools search. The unofficial voting took place after a work session was held with a potential consultant, Wayne Qualls, who was interested in conducting the search on behalf of the Cumberland County Board of Education.
"There is any number of ways we can go about this, but whatever we, or whatever you do, it needs to be transparent," said Qualls. "They need to see that you are in fact doing a search — if that's what you're going to do — and everybody understands that you are doing a search and you're doing it for the right reasons."
Up to that point, the school board had not made an official ruling whether or not a search would be conducted. In a previous meeting, 7th District representative David Bowman said the board should consider taking applications from local candidates to see if there is an acceptable applicant before moving forward. He had asked for an item to be placed on the agenda Thursday night for the board to take applications and consider hiring a director of schools in January, but asked it be pulled prior to the work session.
The BOE began hearing proposals from search consultants two weeks ago, starting with Randy Bennett of the Tennessee School Boards Association, which offered two search packages, one at $5,000 and one at $8,500. Qualls offered to conduct a search for a fee of $5,000 plus normal expenses. The board would have to pay $2,500 when approved and $2,500 at the conclusion of the search if they were satisfied with the results.
"It's not about money for me," he said.
The board voted 6-3 during its regular meeting Thursday to hire Qualls to conduct the search. Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, moved to hire the consultant, supported by Gordon Davis, 5th District representative. The motion was approved with Bowman; Jim Blalock, 8th District representative; and Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, voting no.
Qualls explained that he is offering his services because he believes the board could benefit from his 43 years of experience in the public education system. Plus, he simply enjoys working with school boards and communities.
The board seemed impressed by Qualls' background, which includes serving as principal of Centerville Elementary School for eight years and as the superintendent for the Hickman County School System for 12 years. He stated that his connections with other school officials would be to the board's advantage.
After determining what characteristics and qualifications the board requests, Qualls explained that his next step would be to start recruiting and thoroughly screening each applicant, including local ones.
"I won't send you anyone that I don't know personally or else I do know somebody who knows them personally and I will find everything about them, even their shoe size," he said.
From there, he would recommend semi-finalists, schedule interviews with them and prepare interview questions for the final interview. During all of this, he promised to be available to consult with individual board members as often as needed.
He stated there was nothing wrong with considering local candidates, but he cautioned them about looking at all the options.
"Sometimes, it's all right to have someone from the outside, and sometimes necessary, for a short period of time… and sometimes it paves the way for a local candidate to do an even better job than they could before," Qualls stated.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, remarked that he liked that Qualls would dedicate so much time to their search in his own unique way, instead of the "cookie cutter process" TSBA offered.
"I think the biggest part of the decision we have to make is do we want to stir the ship with Mr. Qualls or do with want to go through the smooth process with TSBA," stated Stone.
However, as Tollett eventually pointed out, the board had yet to decide whether or not they were going to take Bowman's suggestion or hire a consultant.
"I think we have two decisions before us and we're focusing on both of them at the same time," said Tollett.
To speed the decision-making along, Blalock, board chairman, suggested the board do a straw vote.
"Thursday night, on the agenda, (we have) to make a choice between TSBA and Wayne Qualls or vote no on both of them...," said Blalock, adding that a work session should be held afterwards to discuss what the board wants in a candidate.
Bowman insisted on focusing on local applicants without hiring Qualls or TSBA to conduct a search. However, Tollett, Stone, Davis and 2nd District representative Richard Janeway, before leaving the meeting early, voted for a search to be conducted.
Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, first commented that she would go with what the board decided, without offering a vote. After several minutes of discussion, she said she was more comfortable with Qualls, but thought a local search should be done first if the motion came up.
Vivian Hutson, 6th District representative, was reluctant to vote, citing that she had some questions, and Blalock stated he was undecided.
It was stated that five votes from the majority of the board was needed to make a decision. So the board resorted to calling Schlafer on his cell phone to make the deciding vote. Some stated he would be in favor of the search. Schlafer had left the work session early after Qualls' presentation. He did not answer the call placed by Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle, and the discussion continued for several more minutes.
When talk turned to tabling the discussion until all the board members could be present, Bowman ended the discussion — and the work session — by changing his vote to conduct a search with help from one of the consultants.