Cobb school board to name interim superintendent, continues search for new leader
Some of the state’s largest school districts are searching for new leadership at a time when educators are struggling to deal with budget cuts amid intense pressure to maintain high academic performance.
Cobb County school board members on Thursday are expected to name high-ranking district leader Chris Ragsdale, 45, as interim superintendent to replace outgoing superintendent Michael Hinojosa.
The district’s search for a leader to helm Georgia’s second-largest school system comes as DeKalb begins its own hunt for a new superintendent. Atlanta’s public school system also just identified a new superintendent after a nearly year-long, national search.
Rising class sizes, teacher layoffs and widespread furloughs due to decreasing revenues have taken a toll on students and teachers in recent years, and new superintendents will be tasked with leading schools through these challenges.
“There’s never been a tougher time to be an (educator) in Georgia,” said John Adams, executive director of Educators First Inc., a professional association of teachers. “Districts need to select a superintendent that can restore the trust with rank-and-file employees” while also keeping up high standards for academic achievement.
Hank Gmitro, president of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, which helps school districts find superintendents, said it could be challenging for two big nearby districts with similar demographics to be searching at the same time. Cobb and DeKalb are among about a half dozen other Georgia districts looking for new leaders.
But the two districts may not be directly competing because Cobb, facing financial challenges, might need more expertise with budgets; DeKalb, with its accreditation issues and parent dissatisfaction, might be more interested in an academic turnaround.
If appointed, Ragsdale — who serves as Cobb’s deputy superintendent of operational support — is likely to act as interim superintendent close to a year while school board members search for a new superintendent. Hinojosa’s resignation is effective May 31.
So far, Cobb County school board members have revealed little about their plans to replace Hinojosa since he announced his resignation in February. The board has met in closed-door sessions several times to discuss matters related to the superintendent position. But few details have been aired in public portions of board meetings.
A nearly 8-year employee with Cobb schools, Ragsdale oversees a significant portion of the district’s operations, including technology, projects paid for by SPLOST as well as construction and maintenance. He has also previously worked in the Paulding County school system.
Connie Jackson, president of Cobb County Association of Educators, which represents close to 2,000 school employees, said she’s worked with Ragsdale many times and has found him to be “very responsive to anything.”
“He’s been fantastic leading the operational side of the district,” Jackson said. “I think it’s a good choice …Someone already familiar with the district so there’s not this steep learning curve.”
Hinojosa announced he was stepping down because he wants to move to Texas to assist with aging parents and is taking a consulting job. Hinojosa has led the district — Georgia’s second-largest with close to 107,000 students in about 114 schools — since July 2011. Gwinnett is the largest school district, with close to 170,000 students.
Ragsdale would be taking over leadership of the Cobb district that is facing a multi million dollar budget deficit next school year. Hinojosa has said recently that gap has shrunk from an estimated $79 million with Cobb getting better than expected property tax revenues in addition to an increase in funds from the state.
Districts across the state have tightened spending in recent years to deal with a decrease in state funds and property taxes amid the economic recession. Classroom sizes have increased and teaching positions have decreased, with students getting fewer days at school.
School districts across Georgia are seeing a nearly $300 million bump in funding from the state, though school officials say it’s still not likely enough to get districts back to where they were financially before the recession hit.
In DeKalb, school officials have said they will soon begin a search for a new leader to replace Superintendent Michael Thurmond, whose contract ends June 2015. Thurmond, who was appointed to serve last year after the previous superintendent resigned mid-contract, has said he doesn’t want his contract extended to lead the district, the third-largest in Georgia.
For Atlanta Public Schools, the school board will vote next week to hire Meria Carstarphen as superintendent. She has been running the Austin Independent School District.
Ann Cramer, a retired executive who chaired Atlanta’s search committee, said the group vetted candidates from military, university and corporate settings — and people who weren’t necessarily looking for jobs — to cast a wider net.
Stephen Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said the districts should be wary of hiring search firms that “shop the same pool of candidates” from around the country. He also said they’ll be hard-pressed to find better prospects than Hinojosa and Thurmond.
”I think in both of those situations, it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “Both of those men have done a good job.”
Christopher G. Ragsdale
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Information Systems from Kennesaw State University
Experience: Private sector telecomm and computer network positions before serving as chief information officer for Paulding County School District starting in 1996 until 2006, when he was hired by Cobb.
Current role: As deputy superintendent for operations, he oversees maintenance, construction, transportation and public safety. He is also chief technology officer.