The Wilson County Board of Education interviewed four candidates Saturday to be the new director of schools, narrowing the field to two.
Donna Wright, who is currently assistant superintendent of Williamson County Schools and a former assistant superintendent for Knox County schools, was named a finalist, as was Timothy Setterlund, who is currently chief transition officer as Memphis City schools merge with Shelby County schools.
The other two candidates interviewed Saturday were Dennis Albright, director of Braxton County schools in Sutton, W.Va., and David Huss, current director of Obion County schools.
All four candidates for the post answered the same 20 questions proposed by the school board and refined by Wayne Qualls of Tennessee Education Management and Services, the firm hired by the board to lead the search for a new director following the resignation of current Director Mike Davis. All four candidates' answers were scored and the results counted with Wright and Setterlund chosen to advance to the next round of interviews.
Wright was the first person interviewed by the panel.
"I'm a career educator," she told the board during her opening statement. "It's my life's blood - my passion."
As she answered questions, Wright said Wilson County's "growth potential is explosive." When asked about her leadership style, Wright described herself as preferring a "shared leadership" style.
"I'm a good listener," she said. "But when a decision needs to be made, I make the decision."
She said she has been known as an "over communicator" and holds frequent meetings with staff, faculty and the community. Wright noted she is in favor of School Resource Officers, not only on the spot situations, but also to build relationships with students so they will feel comfortable coming forward if they hear about potential danger.
When asked what she thinks is the biggest challenge for public education today, Wright said she finds there is a skewed public perception of public schools.
"Public education has been under attack for a long time," she said. "People have the perception we're not doing a good job. Everyone's an expert because everyone's gone to school. We need to dispel the idea our kids are not learning. Today we have much higher educational standards - failure is a myth. We need to make the public aware of what they are getting for their money."
Wright also acknowledged the sometimes difficult relationship school boards have with their funding bodies - in Wilson County that is the county commission.
"It always creates a bit of tension," she said. "It is what it is and we have to be be transparent with the county commission and be willing to give and take. We must also combat the idea that schools are always looking for a tax increase. I'm fiscally conservative and we have to make sure we are good stewards.
When asked about the role athletics play and how she would evaluate a coach, Wright said she had had coaches who had "trained" her well.
"Some students attend school because of a coach," she said. "I place a high value on coaching and instruction. I ask 'are they the best for working with young people?' A coach is hired to be a teacher first, coaching is secondary."
Wright said she favors a strong career and technical education program and noted that Wilson County Schools' performance on achievement tests has seen "phenomenal" gains.
She added that she would seek to build a "strong relationship and an honest relationship" with the school board if hired. When asked how her current school board would describe her personal and professional ethics and work habits, Wright said she has been "accused of not sleeping."
"I take what I do very seriously," she said. "Of my ethics they would say there was no question. I owned it if it happened on my watch."
Wright said she deals with criticism and controversy by meeting both head-on and being "truthful, deliberate and informed."
"I'm not immune to criticism but I try not to take it personally," she said.
Asked what are the things inhibiting learning in public schools today, Wright said there is a need to level the playing field so all students have the same chance for success.
"There are a lot of economically disadvantaged children and a lot of them are struggling," she said.
Wright also noted she would support school personnel who were forced to remove a child from school for disciplinary reasons, even in the face of pleading or threatening parents.
In her closing to the board, Wright touted her strong and stable job history, noting that her grown children now live and own a business in Wilson County which was a deciding factor in her decision to apply for the job.
"I have the passion," she said. "I didn't move from job to job. I've been waiting on Wilson County. This is where I want to be. I can make it happen."
The third candidate interviewed on Saturday was Setterlund who is the person in charge of the ongoing consolidation of the Memphis City and Shelby County school systems.
He told the board he has been a part of the rapid growth of the Shelby County Schools and with the addition of students from the closing city system, has a lot of experience dealing with growth - the situation now facing Wilson County schools.
"There are always fiscal challenges when dealing with local governments," he said. "School funding always lags enrollment by a year."
When asked about his style of leadership he said he thinks there is "good in all people."
"It's a leader's responsibility to equip them to be successful," Setterlund said. "No one wakes up and says 'I want to fail today.' I have high expectation for myself and everybody else working with me."
He noted he believes in communicating with the county schools' stakeholders by any and all means - phone, emails, meetings.
"Whatever works best," he said. "I try to communicate with the public, parents, government officials and taxpayers as regularly as possible. Face to face meetings with principals is a must and regular two-way communication with the county commission is critical to success."
On the subject of student safety, Setterlund said the district and each school must have contingency plans because in a crisis, "you can't just wing it, it's too critical."
He said he feels the greatest challenge to public education is how school systems find funds.
"Finance is the easy answer," he said. "Budget woes are a result of a loss of understanding and support of what we do. Communicating that is critical."
Setterlund added that too much emphasis can be placed on test scores.
"Test scores are not the whole business of education," he said. "They are important but it's not the development of the whole child into a good citizen."
He noted that his role in the consolidation process in Shelby County would stand him in good stead when it comes to dealing with budgets since he was one of the people tasked with cutting the budget of the unified district in Memphis.
"About 85 percent of an education budget is personnel," he said. "It must also take into account improvements and future needs to expand. You have to make some trade-offs.
As a leader, Setterlund said his job would be to build a winning team. He said the role of athletics and coaches was about more than just wins and losses. He added that the same standards apply to all extra curricular programs.
"Athletics and extra curricular programs are how we teach people to be citizens and work as a team," he said. "Everybody wants a winning team, but I insist they turn young men and women into better people than they were. I want a coach who shows that academics are important."
He too, noted the importance of career and technical education programs.
"College isn't for everybody," he said. "CTE has a valuable place in what we do. It benefits even the college bound students."
Sutterlund added that a student in a CTE program should be able to get a job in their area of study and that schools need to partner with local trade unions to help students find work and/or apprentice positions.
"We need to put them on real, true career pathways," he said.
Sutterlund said all students need to begin on a level playing field. When asked what he would ask about a school that wasn't performing academically, he said he would ask "why?"
"I would dig into the data," he said. "Is the problem with a teacher, a grade level or a subject or across a school or the district.
When asked about his relationship with his current board, Sutterlund explained how the current board in Memphis was still adjusting to being combined and that there have been some hard feelings with the transition.
"My role was to keep them informed about decision and policy changes - to inform them," he said.
He said the current board in Memphis would describe his work ethic and his personal ethics as above reproach.
"They would say Tim Sutterlund is a straight shooter," he said. "That I work tirelessly and that I'm honest - sometimes brutally."
He said criticism and controversy are just part of the job when you run a school district.
"If you're doing your job, there will always be controversy," he said. "You have to be able to manage that. Time doesn't have to be the smartest person in the room. I'm smart enough to listen."
As for controversy, Sutterlund related the story of a coach he was forced to fire after a locker room tirade was posted all over the internet. He described the coach as a friend.
"He could no longer coach," he said. "I had to fire him without totally discrediting him. I'm willing to face those things head-on."
Sutterlund said the biggest obstacle facing schools today is a reflection of society problems.
"It's poverty and a culture of hopelessness. Those children come to school from a bad situation," he said. "Another obstacle is finding resources for education. Teachers will work for less money if they feel they have good leadership in that school."
Setterlund said if he is selected, he would set up "meet the superintendent" meetings with parents, teachers, ministers and government officials.
He said if a student has been removed from school he would tend to support the school employees who took the step.
"I'd never be happy about an overturned suspension," he said. "I would communicate with the parents in advance. I would make sure we were all on the same page and understand the disciplinary policy and why it is. Kids make mistakes - I did. They have to learn from that."
In closing, Setterlund said he thanked the board for the opportunity and for listening.
"It's a tough decision," he said.
After the interviews were complete, Qualls took up the score cards from each board member and tallied them on the spot. Board chairman Don Weathers announced the results.
"We have the final tally - Dr. Donna Wright and Dr. Timothy Setterlund are the top two," he said.
Wright and Setterlund will come back for another round of interviews April 27. After those interviews are scored, the board will offer a contract to the top contender.