RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — The search for a new superintendent for Richland 2 may end in the office of interim superintendent Debbie Hamm, who has earned high marks since taking over the top post nearly three months ago.
For now, the board isn’t making any official decisions about elevating Hamm, a veteran Richland 2 administrator, although members acknowledge that support for Hamm is enthusiastic and widespread. Hamm has declined to say whether she would stay on, if asked.
“I would never say that is not a possibility but at this point we are letting her do her thing,” board chairman Bill Flemming said late last week. “We are trying not to put any pressure on her.”
Hamm, who was the district’s chief information officer responsible for overseeing statistical analysis and implementing technology initiatives, was asked to take over the top post in June, when former superintendent Katie Brochu abruptly resigned.
Hamm, a 62-year-old native of Whittier, Calif., was immediately embraced as someone who understood the culture of Richland 2, having spent nearly four decades with the system, now the largest in the Midlands. Calm and collaborative, she already has worked some magic on a teaching force that many say had become fractured and demoralized under Brochu.
Forest Lake principal Kappy Steck described a meeting of principals and administrators last week, the first full week of the 2013-14 academic year, as “magnetic and magical,” and attributed the new tone to Hamm’s leadership.
Flemming said everywhere he goes, “People say, ‘We want Debbie.’ I haven’t heard any negatives.” Flemming said some of the initiatives that are underway are Brochu’s and should be acknowledged as such.
But critics charged that Brochu’s top-down style of management and her failure to connect with the local community placed the district under stress. It did not help that she arrived in the midst of a recession, when veteran “working retirees” were released from their contracts, or that the district’s standardized scores fell during the same time.
Board member James Manningsaid Hamm already has reached out to the legislative delegation and to the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. The district and the chamber collaborated on a community breakfast last week that drew about 275 people. He said the board is holding off on quick decisions about a new superintendent.
“We feel like Debbie has done such a great job and stabilized us through this change,” Manning said last week. “Our priority is to get this school year started and we will revisit that perhaps at mid-year.”
Stevie Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2012 and now writes a column for the weekly Voice of Blythewood & Fairfield County, said Hamm was “exactly the salve we needed” after the turmoil that festered during the Brochu administration.
“I would love Debbie Hamm to be the superintendent but I also recognize how many years she has given Richland 2,” Johnson, the parent of two Richland 2 graduates, said. Hamm is a grandmother to four, including twin granddaughters born in June, and Johnson said she recognizes that Hamm “is also building the next generation of children” and would likely enjoy spending more time with the youngsters.
Whatever decision is made regarding Hamm’s tenure, Johnson said she believes the school board, a majority of whom endorsed Brochu three years ago, needs to work more closely with the community the next time it begins a search for a superintendent.
“We still need to see the board do some homework,” said Johnson, noting that Brochu was never given a thorough personnel review during her three year administration. Brochu was paid an additional $130,000 in severance upon her departure, with both she and the board agreeing that their disagreements would not be made public.
“So much gets hidden in executive session,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a feel or direction for where the board is going.”
Manning said there have been “loose discussions” about retaining Hamm as the chief executive. Flemming said he plans to take a few minutes during executive sessions each month to discuss the search with the board.
“Part of our decision to wait is to feel out if Debbie would want to do that,” Manning said. “And I don’t think Debbie has an answer to that now.”
So far, Hamm has avoided any speculation about extending her interim appointment.
“Right now I am concentrating on getting the school year off to a great start, ensuring that our students and teachers are getting the support they need, and building the community partnerships,” she said in an email.
Hamm has already received some endorsements from legislative ranks.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who clashed with Brochu over redistricting and the construction of a new district office space, is an advocate for retaining Hamm as superintendent, saying her support is “wide and deep.”
“I just sense the chemistry between her and the board,” Lourie said last week.
But Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, said she regretted Brochu’s departure and wished she could have stayed longer to implement her ideas.
“She was a think-outside-the-box kind of person,” McLeod said of Brochu, who felt Brochu was reaching students, particularly those who were left out of the district’s magnet programs. McLeod said shealso appreciated Brochu’s efforts to elevate minorities to principal positions.
McLeod doesn’t know Hamm but said she would prefer a national search for the next superintendent.
“I would hope we would open it up,” McLeod said Tuesday. “We may find that she (Brochu) was not as far off the mark as people think she was.”