Barely a year after the Richland 2 school board chose Katie Brochu as its new superintendent, there were signs this would not be a harmonious or lengthy marriage.
Brochu, who is leaving the district three years after she was hired as an energetic budget hawk, drew complaints that she was changing the Richland 2 culture too fast and too furiously. There were grumblings about declining SAT scores, the thousands of dollars she spent on professional development through the Schlechty Center, her lack of community presence, and her alleged disdain for the district’s distinctive academic magnet and choice programs, a claim she long denied.
Perhaps most damaging of all, Brochu did not pay homage to the legacy of the man she replaced. Steve Hefner, who retired after 16 years as district chief to try his hand as an education consultant and now heads Lexington-Richland 5, is credited with establishing programs that lifted the academic profile of Richland 2 statewide.
At a called school board meeting Thursday night, Brochu asked to be released from her contract, which now pays her about $223,000 a year, effective July 1, to pursue other professional opportunities. Deborah Hamm, the district’s chief information officer and a 39-year education veteran, was named interim superintendent.
Reaction to Brochu’s departure was swift.
“I can’t think of one thing that I’m really grateful for that she has done since she has been here,” said the Rev. Ellen Skidmore, a Richland 2 parent who was instrumental in establishing the district’s single gender program at Dent Middle School. “I just think she is not a strong leader, and we have been accustomed to strong leadership.”
“I think it is a long time coming,” said Stevie Johnson, the parent of two Spring Valley High School graduates and an unsuccessful candidate for school board in 2012. “I think we have seen a lot of signs of worries and issues of mistrust.”
Skidmore said Brochu correctly saw a lack of cohesion between schools and programs and an atmosphere of competition. But Skidmore said the superintendent brought no vision to the table specific to Richland 2.
“She brought here what she had brought everywhere,” said Skidmore, which is a leadership style based on the professional development work of Phillip Schlechty, an education consultant who focuses on ways to better engage students. District teachers were flown to Florida and California for workshops that emphasize making the student the “customer” in individualized, technology-driven settings.
“The very first time I went to meet with her she talked about the fact there was a lot of diversity (among programs) in the district and she needed to have a common language and that was what Schlechty was supposed to do,” Skidmore said Friday. “She wanted to create a shared language, no matter what magnet program or school you were in.”
But as Brochu moved forward, “instead of pursuing excellence, we were pursuing sameness,” Skidmore said. “I haven’t seen evidence that she can or will craft a creative answer to the realities of the district.”
In her defense, Brochu also was blamed for decisions that had been in the works before her arrival, including the mass departures of working retirees who were employed under annual letters of agreement. An independent study commissioned by Brochu and the board, called the Evergreen study, recommended phasing out about 145 such teachers over the next five years. She took heat for that, as well as for its recommendation to de-emphasize individual school cultures.
That last recommendation so alarmed former schools chief Hefner and his predecessor John Hudgens that they wrote a joint letter to the school board pleading for the retention of the choice and magnet programs as ways to distinguish the district.
Board Chairman Bill Flemming remains one of Brochu’s staunchest advocates, saying Friday he wished Brochu had stayed on, because he saw results from the Schlechty-based training in engaged and excited teachers and classrooms.
“I was a supporter of her,” Flemming said Friday. “I thought she brought the change and direction that we needed.” Brochu arrived during a period of retrenchment for school districts across the state because of the recession and declining state funding.
“I think she only had two years of basic results,” Flemming said, since Brochu arrived in July 2010 with programs already in place for that academic session. “I just think with three years you would have had a better picture. I would have liked her to stay. She decided she didn’t want to.”
Flemming said he believes the 40-point decline in SAT scores is a blip, both nationally and district-wide. Last year, none of Richland 2’s high schools made it in the top 25 of the state’s high schools, according to the U.S. News & World-Report annual rankings.
A contentious high school re-zoning battle also took place under Brochu’s watch in 2011, with critics suggesting that the district was trying to establish a two-tiered district of affluent and poor high schools.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a Richland 2 graduate with a child at Richland Northeast High, protested the plan, along with several hundred parents, the Columbia Urban League and Steve Morrison, the Columbia lawyer most associated with the funding lawsuit brought against the state by 36 poor school districts along South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame.”
The debate reminded residents how the district has evolved from a predominantly white affluent suburban district to one that is majority minority and suffers urban issues of poverty and homelessness. While that was good to understand, Skidmore said, she did not think Brochu offered any plan forward.
The appointment of Hamm was hailed as a huge step forward for a district that in recent weeks has lost three principals and a number of teachers to neighboring districts.
Johnson, who attends every Richland 2 school board meeting and writes for the Blythewood Voice, called Hamm “an excellent interim choice,” because of her expertise in technology and data analysis. “Hopefully we will do something awesome and innovative this next time around.”
School board member James Manning said he hoped the district could begin data analysis that would go beyond “teaching to the test” and develop instructional plans that could reach all students, no matter their level of competence.