The recent vote by the Caddo School Board 8-4 to not offer a new contract to Superintendent Gerald Dawkins has caught the attention of the community. While it surprised those who casually follow the board, it was no surprise to those who watch the board closely. Dawkins’ hiring in 2008 was done at a meeting where no public comment was allowed. The vote that night was 8-4 to hire Dawkins from Michigan over the other finalist from Texas. His first contract was for three years and those years were largely spent dealing with the immediate crisis that was state takeover of up to eight chronically failing schools.
The “Caddo Plan” resulted in the state taking two schools and letting Caddo continue to operate the others under a Memo of Understanding. Five years later the schools in the Caddo Plan except Oak Park remain in accountability problems. In fact, most were recently merged into urban 7-12 schools under the Vision 20/20 Plan. And it was the Vision 20/20 process that saw the Caddo community join together to oppose a plan that seemed to keep morphing every meeting until it finally no longer resembled the initial vision.
Following the passage of the Vision 20/20 plan the next major agenda item for the board was the renewal option for Dr. Dawkin’s contract. What choice did the board really have? He was given a two-year renewal in 2011 with a six-month notice clause. That brings us to today and the board’s decision to not offer another contract or extension. At this point it appears his contract will expire in early August and the board will now enter into a search for a new superintendent. So to clarify, Dr. Dawkins was not fired. The Board simply voted to not offer another contract when the current two-year contract expires. There is no need for buy-outs or golden parachute deals.
Dr. Dawkins will retire from Caddo having served five years, which is longer than any of the past four superintendents, and longer than the three-year average term of a large system superintendent. It is a tough job and the Caddo job can be especially difficult.
So the big question is where do we go from here?
First the board must decide how to move forward. They do have a superintendent under contact until early August. This is a unique situation where they could begin a search and not have need for an interim as they work to have a new person in place by mid August. There are likely several good options in Caddo and in the region. People who know the community, who know the Caddo system, who know the Louisiana reform movement and could hit the ground running day one. There will also likely be a call to seek national candidates. In the end Caddo needs a leader who can aggressively deal with the financial, academic and political issues facing the Caddo system today.
What will the new superintendent face? A system with depleted reserve funds in a state that is freezing K-12 educational support at a time when 35 mills in local property taxes, or roughly 50 percent of all local school taxes are set to be on the ballot in May.
A system with schools still failing and expiring state MOU’s and the likelihood of state takeover looming large. A reform movement that will soon see new school options available to children in terms of on-line schools, charter schools, increased private school options and the likelihood of vouchers in some form once all law suits have played out.
A system likely to take huge hits in high school test scores this year once the temporary, one-year factors that created the gains last year is replaced with the permanent ACT testing component this spring. It will be a new world and the Caddo system must adapt and improve to compete.
The vote by the board was a stark realization that status quo or even marginal improvement is not acceptable.
In the end the real challenge will be vision and leadership.
Where will the vision come from to move forward? Will it come from the board, the new superintendent or the community? In the past five years we’ve had both a system Vision and a Plan.
We are largely no better off than when we began. Now the community is going to be asked for another 10-year, half a billion dollar investment with no clear leadership or plan to build on.
The way public education is moving Caddo may have one more chance to right the ship before the state decides our time has come, and we start to lose major portions of our system like New Orleans and Baton Rouge have already experienced.
What will we do with that chance?
Maybe the time has come for the community to make its priorities known and move in a new direction. A direction that raises up all children and builds a system that educates our children for the future. This system will not look like the systems of old.
It must be open to bold changes and will take bold leadership. It will begin with the Caddo board setting aside old politics and making the right choice in the coming months.D. Scott Hughes is executive director of Alliance for Education, www.alliance4education.org.