Chambers' swan song

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 10:56 p.m.
When Mary Chambers took over the superintendent's office about 3 1/2 years ago, in the wake of the short but disastrous reign of Lawrence Marazza, Kirby-Smith was in turmoil, the School Board was self-destructing and the teachers union was in revolt.
Some might say the odds were stacked against her from the start.
Looking back, one might conclude that Chambers did the best she could with what she had to work with. She worked hard at restoring employee morale. She managed to keep the district in good fiscal balance at a time when state and federal funding for public education was tenuous at best. Chambers never really did make peace with the union, but to the extent that the management-labor relationship is naturally adversarial in the collective bargaining process, that does not necessarily reflect poorly on her leadership.
That Chambers' continued employment as superintendent became a central issue in last year's School Board races did not bode well for her long-term job security. And the election to the board of two Kirby-Smith insiders - Wes Eubank and Ginger Childs - who seemed to have axes of their own to grind against the superintendent was also an indication that Chambers' tenure was not to be a long one.
This week, Chambers announced her intention to resign in the fall. And we suspect that it was neither continued opposition from Eubank nor Childs that finally persuaded her to move on. Rather, it was losing the support of Barbara Sharpe, heretofore one of her longest and most loyal defenders on the board.
Ironically, Chambers lost Sharpe's support because she did exactly what the board majority, including Eubank and Childs, wanted her to do. She presented the board with a sweeping rezoning plan that emphasized neighborhood schools and minimized the use of busing.
That plan figures to be wildly popular in the western suburbs of Gainesville, but on the east side of town it is increasingly viewed as a major resegregation of the public school system. It saddles schools on the east side with large populations of low-income students, while favoring the westside schools with larger proportions of students from middle-to-upper-middle income families. As a practical matter, it divides the district into black schools and white schools.
During this past Martin Luther King Jr. weekend activities, the rezoning plan, and the board's decision to effectively close Prairie View Elementary School, were both major topics of concern among African-Americans who want to see east Gainesville grow more diverse both economically and culturally. Neither is likely to occur now that the School Board has split Gainesville into "have" and "have not" segments
As the only African-American on the board, Barbara Sharpe repeatedly registered her objections to de facto resegregation. Her support for Chambers inevitably evaporated as she saw a rezoning plan that would be disastrous for east Gainesville take shape.
Rezoning was the ultimate acid test of Chambers' leadership abilities. A strong superintendent would have dealt head-on with the racial, social and economic ramifications inherent in the rezoning plan. As the district's chief advocate for children, the superintendent had a responsibility to take a stand, to urge the board to do the right thing.
Instead, the superintendent, taking her cues from the board majority, seemed to take a path-of-least-resistance approach. Most of the adjustments that were made seemed intended to quell the concerns of angry west Gainesville parents, while questions of race, diversity and social equity were glossed over.
In announcing her pending resignation, Chambers said, "The board deserves to have their person that they can be squarely behind, 5-0." We would suggest that a superintendent who enjoys the full support of any board is probably not worth having on the payroll. Inherent in being a leader is the willingness to take risks, to stand on principle and to possess the courage of one's own convictions.
Now the board must prepare for a new superintendent search. And although there appears to be some sentiment for hiring "locally," we would urge a broad search for the best possible candidates.
We believe the ramifications of this rezoning will create some long-term, intractable problems for the district, and the next superintendent will have to face those problems. In some regards, an outsider who had no involvement in the rezoning process might be better positioned to deal with its long-term impacts.
Mary Chambers was drafted into the superintendent's office because a previous board had hired someone who turned out to be a disaster. Because of the circumstances surrounding her promotion, she was thrown in the business of damage-control from day one. And on balance, we believe she well and ably performed the stewardship role she was thrust into.
Chambers deserves much credit for the things she did accomplish and the damage she did repair. But this difficult and divisive rezoning exercise revealed a leadership deficit in Kirby-Smith that now must be attended to.

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