Monday, June 20, 2016

Buzz Thomas: Open letter to parents

Buzz Thomas
As I begin my tenure as your interim superintendent of schools, you have every right to ask – and many of you have – “What are your plans?” Not only do you invest nearly a half billion dollars in our schools, you also entrust us with your most precious resource: your children.

So, here are my plans for the first 90 days. After the new school board members are sworn-in this fall, I will write a second open letter which will reflect their plans and dreams for the coming school year.

Our big goal has not changed since the school board and county commission went on their first joint planning retreat four years ago. We are going to build the best school system in the South.

Not so we can pat ourselves on the back, but so that our children and grandchildren will have happy, successful lives in the highly competitive world in which they will live. Since that joint retreat, we have raised graduation rates to 90%, raised teacher pay and earned the state’s first large school system rating of “exemplary.”

We can be proud of that. But, much remains to be done. Half of our 3rd graders are not reading on grade level. Worse still, more than half of our graduating seniors do not meet the minimum ACT benchmarks for college and career readiness.

In response to these challenges, the school board has adopted a strong strategic plan that includes putting a great principal in every school, a great teacher in every classroom and a great school in every neighborhood. We will continue down that path. Priorities will include:
  • Using our summer training time to ensure that all elementary principals and early-elementary teachers are properly trained to teach reading. Reading remains our single biggest challenge, and we will take an “all hands on deck” approach to meeting that challenge.
  • Making our schools and central office more transparent, collaborative and customer focused. Knox County’s public schools belong to you – the students, parents and taxpayers.
  • Making decisions as close to the action as possible. When someone is assigned responsibility for a task, they should be given the authority to go with it. In so far as possible, teachers should be allowed to run their classrooms and principals to run their schools. Of course, everyone must be accountable. If someone can’t do the job, we will replace them, but we will not micromanage our schools. The central office should be the place of last resort when it comes to decisions about a child’s education. 
  • Getting our own operations in order. The Knox County Schools has declared its intention to provide “excellence for every child,” yet recent studies by outside individuals and organizations suggest that we have not held ourselves to that same standard of excellence when it comes to managing our own operations. We have experienced significant problems with transportation, public information and human resources, for example. We have asked our students and teachers to meet the highest standards of accountability. Those same standards will be applied to those of us in the central office.
The Board of Education is less divided than one might think. Every single member is united in their desire to see students learn and teachers want to teach in Knox County. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, student achievement and teacher morale are like peas and carrots.

We have much to accomplish, and we will need your help to do it. Public schools are everybody’s business, and it will take everybody working together to achieve our lofty goal of being the best in the South. Please roll up your sleeves and join us in the work. Our children deserve no less.

Many thanks,

Buzz Thomas - Interim Superintendent

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