Some parents question board’s choices for Richland 1 superintendent

The Richland 1 school board appears set to act Friday on the selection of a new superintendent, even as some parents are calling into question the qualifications of two of the three top finalists and seeking to delay the vote.

The decision has been cloaked in secrecy, with board members racing through a list of 77 candidates provided by a search firm the district hired to reach the final three: John Covington, a former Kansas City and Michigan administrator; Diana Greene, a Florida deputy superintendent; and Craig Witherspoon, a former Birmingham, Ala., schools chief who was a Richland 1 candidate in 2008.

Once the finalists’ names were made public, though, it didn’t take long for some Richland 1 parents to do the research and turn up a thicket of blistering news accounts detailing the professional woes of Covington, whose district schools lost accreditation following his tenure, and Witherspoon, who survived two board attempts to fire him before resigning last year from Birmingham schools.

The three candidates were brought in for a meet-and-greet last week that was not publicized by the district and left some constituents trying unsuccessfully to contact their elected board members to voice objections.

The selection of a new schools chief comes at a critical time for the district, once the Midlands’ largest, which has pockets of excellence but wide swaths of poverty and uneven academic performance.

“Really, you had 77 people and you spent our money to hire a search firm and these are the people you came up with?” Townes Denemark, a parent of two children at Brennen Elementary, said this week.

Denemark said members of Brennen’s School Improvement Council met Monday to discuss strategies to encourage the board to either expand the search process or start over. But by Thursday, some Richland 1 board members were not returning calls or updating parents about an anticipated vote.

Efforts to reach the Richland 1 school board chairman and some other board members about a possible vote were unsuccessful Wednesday and Thursday.

But Tuesday, school board chairwoman Cheryl Harris provided assurances that the three finalists would be properly vetted. She would not comment on how the board was reacting to opposition.

Cody Smith and his wife, Carrie, are among a group of parents at A.C. Moore Elementary who researched the candidates and emerged concerned, particularly about Covington.

“It’s concerning for us as parents that you have a field of 77 and he is one of the final three,” Smith said. “It sends a black cloud over all three of them.”

Covington was criticized for his early exit from his Kansas City contract in 2011. Covington abruptly resigned to take a lucrative job in Detroit, where he supervised 38 low-performing schools under a state-funded entity, the Education Achievement Authority.

In Kansas City, the community had embraced Covington’s decision to close 40 percent of its schools, reduce the workforce by a third, and group students by skill level rather than grade.

But his sudden departure left many feeling betrayed. The Kansas City Star wrote an opinion piece titled: “Trust John Covington? We don’t in KC.”

Shortly after Covington’s departure and his school and workforce reductions, the Kansas City school district lost accreditation.

Covington left his Detroit post in June, saying he needed to care for his ailing mother, but the Detroit News also reported concerns about excessive travel spending at the authority. Covington has since founded an institute for student-centered teaching and learning.

Witherspoon endured a stormy four-year tenure in Birmingham beginning in 2010, where he survived two attempts by the school board to fire him in 2012. Witherspoon and the board clashed over workforce reductions and personnel hires. The Alabama Department of Education, which took over the Birmingham schools that same year, thwarted the second firing.

Witherspoon’s contract was later extended through 2018 but Witherspoon announced his resignation in October 2014, shortly after he revealed the discovery of an improperly bid $65,000 curriculum department expenditure.

Witherspoon was one of three Richland 1 superintendent candidates in 2008, when the school board selected Percy Mack for the top job. Witherspoon was then leading a small district in Edgecombe County, N.C.

Denemark, the Brennen Elementary parent, said one SIC member had attended the finalist meet-and-greet and did come away impressed with Greene, the deputy superintendent of instruction for Manatee Public Schools in Bradenton, Fla. She is the only candidate who has not been the subject of unflattering news accounts.

“That was kind of the consensus that we would support her,” Denemark said. Greene is also one of four contenders for superintendent of the St. Lucie Public Schools, a district of about 40,000 students.

Richland 1 school board member Jamie Devine said he has not heard anything negative in the few emails he has received.

“There is no perfect candidate,” he said. “You can have the best person but I can guarantee you someone is not going to like him or her.”

The three finalists were winnowed from a list of 77 provided by B.W.P. and Associates, an Illinois-based education leadership search firm that previously has worked with Richland 1 and several other S.C. districts. It was not known Thursday how much the district is paying B.W.P.

School board chair Harris said Tuesday the board did not have a timetable for making the final selection. But Thursday afternoon, the district posted an agenda for the 5:30 p.m. Friday meeting.

According to state law, a public body must give 24-hour notice of a public meeting.

Harris offered assurances Tuesday that the school board would not proceed without full community support.

“The board is going to fully vet the process out and make sure we are going to pick the right candidates,” Harris said. “Right now, we are going through what we consider the assessment phase.”

But media attorney and USC journalism professor Jay Bender said the attitude of board members toward the public’s questions did not suggest either an understanding or an embrace of open government. Bender has represented The State and other S.C. news organizations.

“When board members are ducking and not returning phone calls, that suggests that the fix is in, and that the fix is in for the wrong guy,” Bender said.