Speakers at final Board of Education public comment session on Superintendent Search want no more changes for teachers, plea for hire of local candidate to head up PSD

Local residents gave voice to what was a consensus opinion during the final of two sessions allowing people to comment on the superintendent search on Tuesday night.

That message to the board was clear: local educators need someone they can trust, and that person is a longtime veteran of the Polk School District.

Every speaker was careful not to put a name to that candidate, but thus far the only local to confirm that she has applied for the job is assistant Superintendent Laurie Atkins, who had no further comment on the job itself.

Atkins was among a large crowd at the Polk County College and Career Academy's campus at Cedartown High School for Tuesday night's meeting, which featured more than a dozen speakers who signed up to give their thoughts about what the Board of Education should seek in a new superintendent.

Many among the speakers were local educators who also came to the board with a plea for no more immediate changes, and no new programs that promise results and are quickly forgotten by the next year.

That message began with Cedartown High School math teacher Jennifer Fetkenhour, who said that trust and work ethic must be restored to the district.

Specifically, her complaints mirrored by others was that the Board of Education needed to bring in a new leader for the district that trusts teachers to make the right choices about how to present material in the classroom to students. She also pointed out that school isn't just about education, but preparing students for life.

"They've been given too much leniency and a proper work ethic has not been developed these past few years," Fetkenhour said. "In school there are requirements such as attendance, rules for certain assignments and deadlines just as there are in life. And when rules are not followed, there are consequences for your actions. And that may mean some may get some failing grades to start off with, but I believe they will wake up and realize 'we're going to have to get back to work. They're serious about this.'"

Polk County College and Career Academy Chief Executive Officer Katie Thomas mirrored those thoughts, and pointed out that in her 12 years of education in the district there have been six different superintendents, two of those serving in interim roles, and that this has been too much change at the top.

"We need someone who loves this school system, someone that loves this county, and someone that has a vested interest in what we do on a daily basis," Thomas said. "We need someone who is respected, and not someone who is coming in trying to gain respect, but has earned it."

Thomas added that the district needed healing from within, and someone that teachers can trust that problems and concerns in the classroom will be addressed and not ignored.

Cedartown City Commissioner and Northside Elementary teacher Matt Foster said much the same, and that voters in Polk County sent a clear message to the Board of Education when sending new members to serve during the 2016 elections.

He said he came close to leaving the district three years before during the tenure of Superintendent William Hunter due to the "toxic environment that was perpetuated by our leadership" on the board.

Foster said it was "not the time to bring in another person from the outside" and the board also needed to hire someone who would restore relationships with local municipalities, who felt forgotten by the former superintendent.

"I have all the confidence in the world that this person is already within our midst," Foster said. "She is not only highly qualified, but uniquely qualified to continue this path of restoration."

Others mirrored those thoughts, especially in hiring someone who local teachers and residents considered to have integrity and as pastor and teacher Jason Purser described as "someone children can look up to and trust, and someone parents can trust with their children."

Youngs Grove Elementary principal Wesley Styles also made clear that any new hire should first and foremost try not immediately change the way students are educated, and how teachers are told to provide lessons in the classroom, and that "just when we get good at something, they go and change it on us." He added that teachers are "gun-shy" about bringing in a new hire from outside with mandates for yet another round of changes.

"The biggest complaint is we often jump on every bandwagon around," he said. "... We don’t need fancy new programs or ideas brought into Polk School District. What we need is consistency of practice and process, consistency of implementation, and fidelity and professional development and consistency in leadership."

Other teachers mirrored those thoughts. Camille Whitfield, Angie Ward, Dr. Dorothy Welch, and retired teacher June Beck were among those advocating for a local hire and pleading for no more changes to the board.

Kevin King, who said he's tried and failed to address his complaints to the board, said that he felt the meeting was a breath of fresh air for local educators and also promoted hiring of candidates who understand the local problems facing Polk School District in the future.

However he also had some other issues he wanted to address tied to the hire of a new superintendent, and where the focus should be on priorities once a new hire is announced and fills the job. For instance, he wants a review of the electronics use policy in the classroom, better funding for athletics programs and more financial support for teachers in training and classroom supplies.

"I don't know a single teacher in the district who isn't spending out of their own pocket for supplies in the classroom," he said.

He also wants a hire with business acumen, and who also speaks Spanish to help better serve parts of the community for who English is a second language.

One former administrator in the Polk School District used her time to talk about the integrity of the new hire, and hoped the board understood any new hire has a direct impact on the future of the county as a whole in terms of providing for the future workforce.

Polk County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jonathan Blackmon, who facilitated the meeting, also spoke but saved his comments for the end of the session. Instead of making the position of superintendent one controlled by the board and thus making the decisions of the board potentially unpopular with voters, he said the job should be one decided upon by the voters.

"A vote is the most fairest way to get a superintendent," Blackmon said. "You lay out the guidelines and let them apply, and then just like my Sheriff does, you let them hit the street and tell everyone why they want to lead the Polk School District."

Before the meeting closed, Cedartown Commission chair Jordan Hubbard, who has also served as a dual enrollment history teacher for the Polk School District and Georgia Northwestern Technical College during the past year, shared a final thought for local leaders that echoed through the College and Career Academy.

"It’s time we give it to a well deserved lady who’s earned her keep in Polk County," he said.