Leader Blues

Friday, September 08, 2006

TOP STORY >>District decides on chief

By RICKY HARVEY
Leader managing editor

The Pulaski County Special School District Board voted unanimously Tuesday evening to stick with the person who has led the district on an interim basis for the past three months. Four candidates with extensive backgrounds in education traveled from all over the country to visit the district two weeks ago, vying to be superintendent, but in the end, interim chief James Sharpe received the nod to keep leading the state’s second-largest school district.

The decision, drawing applause from those in attendance, ends nine rocky months for the district, which went without a permanent superintendent after Don Henderson’s contract was bought out last May. In fact, the district has been labeled as unstable since Bobby Lester retired in 1999.

“This job started Nov. 15 when I was appointed interim superintendent,” Sharpe said Tuesday, acknowledging his hiring was a surprise. “The challenges ... are challenges, but I think what is broken can be fixed.” The board also approved a motion to begin negotiations for Sharpe’s salary, which will range from $165,000-$175,000, an amount approved by the Arkansas Department of Education.

Sharpe, who has been with the district since 2000, was one of five candidates who interviewed with the board and also met with various focus groups two weeks ago. The other candidates included Dr. Aquine Jackson of Milwaukee; Dr. Ed Musgrove of Waynesville, Mo.; Dr. Bruce Harter of Wilmington, Del., and Dr. Carl Davis of Powder Springs, Ga.

“After considering all the candidates, I felt like (Sharpe) has the best interest of our school district in mind and in heart,” board president Pam Roberts said. “He has been with our district, knows a lot about our district already and has very good leadership ability.”

That leadership is needed as the district attempts to overcome an array of problems, including serious financial woes, getting out from under court desegregation order, improving facilities and helping strengthen relationships with the various communities. “In looking at all the comments from the focus groups, talking to my constituents, looking at the job he has done so far and weighing him with the other candidates, he came out as the strongest candidate,” said board vice president Gwen Williams.

“I think he has done a pretty good job as interim superintendent, and given the opportunity to know he’s going to be in the position, he’s going to do some good things.” Tackling the issues of the district being on the state fiscal-distress list and dealing with a feasibility study that will determine whether the PCSSD will continue to exist as it is are top priorities, and so is strengthening the district’s relationship with patrons of Jacksonville and Sherwood, Sharpe said.

“We will be communicating with those communities a lot better,” Sharpe said. “Communication is the key, trust is the key and integrity is the key, doing what you say you’ll do and living up to your promises.” Roberts said the board spent last week reading the comments members of each focus group — which included students, teachers, principals and support staff — submitted after meeting with each candidate.

And despite the board spending $18,500 (plus expenses) to hire the national consulting firm of McPher-son and Jacobson of Omaha, Neb., to lead the search and the district spending the money to fly the four out-of-state candidates in from as far as Delaware, she was satisfied with the process that led to Sharpe getting the job.

“We knew there was a possibility that someone from within would apply when we agreed (to hire the search firm),” Roberts said. “We just wanted to make sure that we considered all possible candidates in the field, and it just so happened that we had a good one right here.” Sharpe’s familiarity with the issues was a key in his hiring, board vice president Williams said.
“A lot of the constituents in my area wanted somebody who knew the history of the district, the history behind desegregation and fiscal distress,” said Williams, whose district includes McAlmont and parts of Jacksonville.

Sharpe was hired five years ago as PCSSD’s assistant superintendent for human resources, a position he held until being named interim superintendent. Sharpe’s background includes being a principal and director of human resources at St. Cloud Schools in Minnesota from 1994-1998 and being executive director of Flint (Mich.) Community Schools from 1998-2000.
He received his bachelor’s in chemistry from Philander Smith College in 1964 and his master’s in chemistry from Pittsburg State Uni-versity in Kansas in 1974. He was certified to be an administrator at the University of Tulsa in 1990.

“I would hope now that he will get with the board and we can sit down and look at short-term objectives and long-term goals to help us get where we want to be,” Williams said of Sharpe. “I think he’s working in that direction.” While the search for a permanent leader may be finally over, ending a lot of stress for the school board, there are still challenges ahead, Roberts said.

“The work isn’t over for me, it’s just beginning,” she said. “We’re going to be doing a lot of work together to better this school district.”