Cobb County school board members are lavishing interim superintendent Chris Ragsdale with rave reviews, indicating they want him as the permanent replacement to lead Georgia’s second-largest school system despite his lack of experience educating children.
Ragsdale, who has a background in information technology and was Cobb’s deputy superintendent for operations, was expected to be interim superintendent a year while the board looked for outgoing Superintendent Michael Hinojosa’s replacement.
But board leaders now say they’d like to keep Ragsdale on and haven’t started a search for a superintendent, even though high-profile education leaders – including state Superintendent John Barge — have inquired about the job. Ragsdale has earned praise for a smooth start to the school year and his visibility in schools. He says he’s qualified enough to lead a district as large as Cobb.
“From my understanding, there’s a high probability he’ll be permanent,” said longtime Cobb school board member David Banks. “Right now, he’s doing an excellent job. I see no reason why we wouldn’t hire him as a permanent superintendent.”
Ragsdale, 45, was appointed in May after the unexpected resignation in February of Hinojosa, who said he was leaving to take a consulting job and assist his aging parents in Texas.
Hinojosa had led the district — which has close to 108,000 students in about 114 schools — since July 2011 and was hired from Dallas schools after a national search.
Some parents think the board should be open to searching nationally again for the best candidate.
Abby Shiffman, who has a son attending Wheeler High School in Cobb, said school board members should be open to a variety of candidates and conducting a national search “would not hurt.”
“I think the last time they were closed-minded because they only wanted somebody from outside” of Cobb, she said. “And we had people inside, who I thought were capable. I think they just have to be open.”
Cobb’s school board is expected to formally appoint a new superintendent in the spring, after two new members join the seven-member board in January. Current board chairwoman Kathleen Angelucci has also voiced support for Ragsdale.
DeKalb’s school system is also searching for a superintendent to replace Michael Thurmond, whose contract ends in June. Atlanta Public Schools named a new superintendent, Meria Carstarphen, a veteran educator from Texas, in March after nearly a yearlong search.
Cobb school board members say they’d like to see someone take over as superintendent who has experience working in the Cobb school system. They also want a superintendent to serve beyond three years. Ragsdale is a Cobb County native who’s worked in Paulding and Cobb school systems nearly 22 years. Most school superintendents in Cobb have typically served 3-5 years.
“We ought to be able to get one (superintendent) that loves Cobb County and we love him or her,” said Randy Scamihorn, the school board’s vice chairman. “And they stay for a while … so we can have some continuity and get some things done.”
Scamihorn says he likes that Ragsdale has a background in information technology and said it should help the system keep track of students’ progress. School systems increasingly are turning to metrics and data to continually gauge how students and teachers perform in the classroom.
Other board members have praised Ragsdale for being visible in schools and accessible to educators and others throughout the system, which employs close to 13,371 people – the second-largest employer in the county.
Gary Ray, president of Ray and Associates, whose firm conducts superintendent searches for school districts across the country, says a local candidate “doesn’t guarantee they’re going to be there forever or there’s going to be strong continuity.” He said he’s heard from a few superintendents outside Georgia who are interested in the Cobb post.
“I think it’s all about matching the person up with the community and what skill set that person has for what the board has in mind for the next X amount of years,” Ray said.
Ragsdale’s lack of education background could hamper him in winning the support of educators and parents, though other nontraditional candidates with backgrounds in business and military have served successfully in superintendent roles, school observers say. Michael Thurmond in DeKalb did not have extensive education experience when he was called on to stabilize the struggling district. Former Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis was also a nontraditional choice selected to lead that district past an infamous cheating scandal.
Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, which represents about 2,000 teachers, said there was some question initially about Ragsdale’s lack of education background. But teachers, so far, have embraced him.
“Barring anything terrible happening, I think we would support him becoming the permanent superintendent,” Jackson said. “I think his background being less in education has really not turned out to be an issue because he’s surrounded himself with great people, who do come from an education background. He’s listening to their advice and weighing everything.”
Ragsdale says he’s interested in serving as permanent superintendent. If appointed, one of his major concerns will be Cobb’s ongoing budget constraints. The district had faced a nearly $80 million deficit for this school year, until the Legislature stepped in last spring to provide more funding; property tax revenues were also better than expected.
He also wants to propel the county in its technology development, expanding the tools and data used to track student achievement.
“My mom was a teacher … I understand what the industry of education is,” Ragsdale said. “I’m vested in Cobb. When I came to Cobb in 2006, it was a not a stepping stone to go to another district or to another county. I’m not looking to go anywhere else, regardless of what happens with this position.”
By Rose French
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A nearly 8-year employee with Cobb schools, in his previous job he oversaw a significant portion of the district’s operations, including technology, projects paid for by SPLOST and construction and maintenance. He worked in the Paulding County school system from 1992-2006 as chief information officer, responsible for all technology-related aspects of the district.
In the early 1990s he served short stints at BellSouth Telecommunications in Atlanta and IBM Corp. in Marietta, providing database programming, technical support and other IT duties.
He has a bachelor’s degree in information systems from Kennesaw State University and is enrolled at Shorter University in Rome, Ga., pursuing a master’s degree in business administration, according to Ragsdale’s resume. He is also enrolled at KSU seeking a master’s in education.
Annual salaries for metro Atlanta superintendents:
Cobb – (Interim) Chris Ragsdale — $185,000
Fulton – Robert Avossa — $315,587
Gwinnett – Alvin Wilbanks — $482,280
Atlanta Public Schools – Meria Carstarphen – $375,000
DeKalb – Michael Thurmond — $275,000