Edmond Heatley, the unanimous finalist for BUSD superintendent

The Berkeley school board tonight will hear a report in closed session on the site visit to Clayton County, Georgia, to assess the lone finalist for the district’s vacant superintendent post, Edmond Heatley.

The board released Heatley’s name on Friday, although there is no contract yet approved. Heatley resigned from his Clayton County post last Wednesday. According to school board members, the expectation is that Heatley’s formal appointment will be considered at the September 19 board meeting.

While Heatley is reported to have made significant improvements to a troubled school district in Georgia, he has also come under fire for his management style and actions he took there, such as having his wife on the school district payroll at a time when budgets and jobs were being cut. His children also had summer jobs with the school district. According to BUSD director Wilson, these and other issues were considered in the board’s due diligence.

“In the aggregate, we were satisfied that a number of issues that had been raised in the media in Georgia had been addressed,” she said.

Heatley was unanimously approved as the only current finalist for the position by the board. The board’s release last Friday declared: “The site visit is the final step of an extensive vetting process to verify Dr. Heatley’s credentials and is conducted in addition to the required background checks. Once this due diligence is completed, the Board will be in a position to formally offer Dr. Heatley an employment contract.”

“Given what we were looking for, he represents a very strong fit,” said Wilson. “I strongly believe he’ll come into the district and hit the ground running to address our most pressing issues.”

Wilson described those key issues as the achievement gap, the disproportionate number of black students suspended, and a need to become a more data-driven school district.

Heatley has led the Georgia county’s school district since 2009. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Heatley was the eighth superintendent in Clayton since 2000. The district has 52,000 students, over 7,500 employees, and 70 schools.

District had raft of problems

As the rapid turnover of superintendents in Clayton indicates, the district had a raft of problems. Its budget had been rejected and accreditation had been lost because of a failed school board. Accreditation was restored shortly before Heatley’s arrival, although he steered the district out of probation and got Clayton’s school budget balanced and approved. According to the BUSD board release, Heatley oversaw improvements on test scores and attendance, particularly among minority groups.

“If you can think of the most difficult things any school district could face, he walked into them immediately,” said Pam Adamson, chair of the Clayton County school board. Adamson gives Heatley credit for quickly dealing with the many issues with which the district was struggling.

“We had a poor student attendance rate and a poor staff attendance rate,” Adamson said. “Dr. Heatley began immediately working on getting our children to school and getting our staff to work.”

In heated comments to articles in the Journal-Constitution — and comments from Georgia on Berkeleyside’s own coverage — dispute arises as to what credit Heatley should get for the improvements. He clearly has both allies and vocal opponents in Georgia.

“There are always people in every community who have a different agenda,” Adamson said. “There were people who gave the superintendent a hard time almost from the moment he walked in.
No matter how good you are, you’re going to provide them with some opportunities to criticize.”

Adamson said the allegations of nepotism were unfair. Heatley’s wife had applied for a job at one of the district’s high schools. The school’s principal wanted to hire her, and the school board — not Heatley — approved her hire, Adamson said. His children’s summer jobs were also not contentious for Adamson.

“We’ve had other superintendents whose wives were principals in the district, and others whose wives were teachers in the district,” she said. “I didn’t have any trouble with it.”

Tough decisions not always welcome

An observer of Clayton schools who asked not to be named said Heatley arrived in the job when the district was “hanging by a thread.” He had to make tough decisions in a school community facing significant challenges and they were not always welcome, she said, but he had brought “structure and professionalism” to the district.

Sid Chapman, president of the 2,500-member Clayton County Education Association, which represents teachers, administrators and clerical workers, said that he had a good working relationship with Heatley. Georgia is a “non-bargaining” state, which means union official don’t have the right to represent teachers in discipline hearings. Heatley made sure that the union was present whenever a teacher requested it. Chapman also started to meet regularly with Heatley and his closest circle of advisers. “When he first came he worked very well with us,” said Chapman.

But there have also been some stumbles. Due to increased state and national requirements, like applying for Race to the Top status, teachers were finding themselves burdened by numerous meetings and extra paperwork. The central office of the school district informed teachers that they would have to come in on Saturdays to complete everything — a mandate that was not legally enforceable, said Chapman.

Then Heatley decided to cut back instructional hours on Wednesday to give teachers more academic and clerical prep time, a move that the Clayton County Education Association embraced. But he made the decision just two weeks before the start of the new school year and parents rebelled since they did not have enough advance warning to change their schedules, said Chapman. That initiative is now on hold.

Another school district observer who did not want to be quoted said that was a reflection of Heatley’s Marine background. Rather than working with people ahead of time to get buy-in, he just goes ahead and does things.

Chapman said Heatley is more inclusive than that. “He will talk. He will listen. But I think he is very big on making the final decision.”

Controversy over uniforms

One other controversey that erupted shortly after Heatley took over as superintendent in 2009 concerned school uniforms. When 1,500 students went on strike in protest of having to wear them, Heatley suspended them, according to newspaper reports. He had the support of the school board, but his action angered many parents.

Heatley began his career in public education in 1996, following 13 years of active duty as a Marine officer (read his full biography here). He received his doctorate in education from the University of Southern California, and has a masters degree from Old Dominion University and a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University.

Clayton County lies to the south of Atlanta and has dramatically different demographics to Berkeley. According to the latest census data, 66% of the county’s 261,000 residents are black, and 26% are white. Slightly less than 18% of the county’s residents have a college degree and the median household income is $43,311, $6,000 below the Georgia average. In Berkeley, whites are the largest racial group (59.5%), followed by Asians (19.3%) and blacks (10%). The median household income is $58,617, about $2,000 less than the California average, and 68.2% of the population has a college degree.

Berkeley school district names likely superintendent [08.31.12]
Berkeley school district names two interim superintendents [08.23.12]
Two interim superintendents to take reins at BUSD [08.16.12]
What does Berkeley want from its new schools head? [03.14.12]
Berkeley schools superintendent Bill Huyett to retire [12.06.11]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...