Editor’s note: Former school superintendent Sallie Brewer had long been involved with Bryan County Schools when her contract was bought out in February in what became a controversial 4-3 vote by the BoE. She has said little publicly about the buyout until agreeing to do this interview.
Below are a list of Brewer’s written answers to a list of emailed questions. Her answers are unedited but will hopefully give readers an opportunity to look at the buyout and other school related issues from Brewer’s standpoint.
1. The time of and manner in which the buyout came was a shock to a number of people, no matter which side of the issue they were on. We’ve asked the BoE why the decision was made to end your employment in February rather than later and haven’t gotten a response – so we’ll ask you.
Why do you believe your contract was bought out when it was?
Brewer: That is a question for the four members. There should be a minimum standard for human behavior - good manners. Clearly it was intended as a public humiliation. I wasn’t embarrassed. I was bought out during the most successful school year we have ever had with staff morale at an all-time high. The public show of support for me at the called meeting on February 19 has seen no equal in my 34 years in Bryan County Schools. Supporters weren’t allowed to speak, but their presence spoke for them. A person who has served a school system for 34 years should be treated with some basic measure of respect. No individual has ever left this school system without some recognition of service. My e-mail was cut off during the February 19 meeting before I could exit the building; A teacher said it best -"What they did was awful, but it was worse because they didn’t give us the chance to say thank you and goodbye to Dr. Brewer. " That teachers and administrators continue to do exemplary work is not an endorsement of the action of the board; it is rather an affirmation of the professional dedication to Bryan County children consistently demonstrated by Bryan County staff.
2. When were you informed your contract was going to be bought out? What was the sequence of events prior to the called meeting?
Brewer: On the Friday before Presidents’ Day holiday, February 13, the chairman called and said he needed to see me on the next Tuesday. He would not say what it was about. He came Tuesday morning, February 17, and gave me the agenda for the February 19 meeting at which a buyout of the contract was approved.
3. Your critics have said you are everything from commandeering and too old fashioned to a bad PR person. You’ve gotten criticism from the Bryan County News through editorials for not spending more time tending to the PR side of the job and explaining why certain things happened. What do you say to those critics, including us?
Brewer: Good PR is simply telling the Bryan County School System story. There were many public relations activities during my administration. Suggestions from the community, the board, and advisory groups were implemented. Some examples follow. I visited every school every week. I attended as many school functions and student activities as I could schedule. I signed twenty-five hundred perfect attendance and honor roll letters every nine weeks. My purpose was to be visible in the schools and in the community and to make as many personal contacts as possible. Every one of the 950 staff members received a handwritten birthday card every year. I asked that principals make me aware if a staff member had a serious illness or had suffered the loss of a family member. I wrote personal notes about such crises in the lives of staff so that it would be obvious that I cared about staff beyond the work day. Good News About Bryan County Schools was distributed quarterly to all boxholders. The names of parent advisory representatives were listed to enable easy parent access. Those names are not contained in the latest edition of Good News. I started the paper in 1984, and it continues today. The paper is filled with pictures of children, reports of how SPLOST funds are used, and other updates for the public. In addition to the 16,000 Bryan County boxholders who receive the newspaper, additional copies were sent with a special note from the superintendent to local officials, state officials, offices of congressional representatives and senators on the national level, and the military leadership at Ft. Stewart and Hunter. At the beginning of each year, open house events are held at each school as a positive start to the school year. Education Matters articles appeared weekly in Bryan County News. The curriculum resource teachers sent pictures to both newspapers weekly to showcase instructional successes of children and teachers. Tours of schools including actual observations of teachers teaching were initiated this school year to provide local officials, the media, retired teachers, parent support group leadership, and others an inside look at the schools. A parent advisory group chosen by the school council members met with me quarterly and also often found me during carline or at other times to ask individual questions. Every school elected a teacher to represent the entire staff of the individual school in staff advisory meetings. Changes in school activities were accomplished because of the input of these two groups. Questions from the media were answered unless answering failed to protect students and/or staff. Federal privacy laws prevent the sharing of personal information. An editorial once described me as a lightning rod. I believe that was a compliment because the role of the lightning rod is to protect and to deflect harm.
"Old-fashioned" is not a bad thing. Old-fashioned values include loyalty, hard work, dedication, and other qualities our children study in their character education classes. There must be an ultimate authority in a school system. No institution can survive for long if a chain of command is not recognized and enforced. The board is the ultimate authority. I sent updates to board members in writing several times a week. Urgent matters were handled by making seven calls so that every member knew about the matter in advance. All superintendent decisions are subject to the board’s review and support or reversal. It is the board which supervises the superintendent - not the other way around.
I was often criticized for making an unpopular decision when I was only enforcing a law or rule over which I had no control. Enforcing handbook rules or board policies also resulted in adverse reactions from parents and others.
Again, a teacher said it best. She said that teachers regard the superintendent in much the same way a child regards a parent - there is not always agreement, but there is always the trust by the staff that the superintendent is trying to act in the staff’s and the students’ best interests.
4. On a similar note, our blogsite at bryancountynews.net lit up in record numbers when your employment was ended, with some strong opinions expressed both in your favor and against you. Why do you believe you became such a controversial figure?
Brewer: Anyone who assumes the role of superintendent must know that anything which does not suit any individual becomes the "fault" of the superintendent. I was fascinated by some of the things blamed on me. Many had never come to my attention. Many people who criticize me have never met me. The public does not always understand chain of command. The superintendent makes NO final decisions. All decisions are subject to board review and ultimately their support or reversal. The board never gave me anything but a perfect evaluation.
5. Do you find it ironic that some BoE members who criticized previous boards and you for being uncommunicative and unresponsive to the public have refused to comment specifically about their vote on your buyout?
Brewer: People pay more attention to what you do than to what you say. The four board members are the only ones who can answer for saying one thing and doing another. It is important to be consistent. One of the greatest compliments that I have ever received was given to me by a principal - that any principal knew what I would do in a given situation, and that principals knew that if they enforced board policies, handbook rules, and other requirements, they did so with the assurance that the superintendent would be standing with them. I returned every call from a parent or other citizen the same day I received it. When the question was a school-level question, I insisted that the principal be contacted first in order to preserve the principal’s authority in the school.
Any representative serving on parent or staff advisory committees could give you facts to prove that all groups had a mechanism for anonymous input.
6. You’ve said the buyout money could have been spent to address other needs, yet you were the one to up the ante from the $180,000 quoted initially by BoE Chairman Eddie Warren to more than $250,000. You took flack for it from some who said it showed you really didn’t care about children and were in it for the money after all. Your response?
Brewer: The amount of the buyout I stated at the February 19 meeting was the same as the figure that appeared on the final agreement. There can be no doubt that I wanted to work. I didn’t want a buyout. The superintendent’s contract is a legal document. It binds both sides, not just one. On February 19, 2009, at the meeting called to buy out my contract, a board member asked me what the cost would be. I responded that it would be more than $253,000. It wasn’t a guess or my demand. It was the number yielded by computation mandated in the contract. I asked the finance person to compute, based on the contract. The board chairman did not contact the finance department. I can’t answer for where that $180,000 figure originated. I did my homework. There was never a negotiation. There was a computation of what the contract said the buyout cost would be if the board chose to implement the buyout provision. The money would have been better spent on school system needs. That decision was not in my hands. It was completely in the hands of the four board members who voted for the buyout. I didn’t make the decision that the money would go to cover buyout costs. It was never about the money for me - in seven years I never requested or received an increase in the local supplement.
7. There are some who think this school system has become one of the best in the state not so much because of longtime leaders such as Frances Meeks, etc., but instead because of demographics, particularly the large influx of affluent families from other parts of the country and their involvement in the schools. What is your reaction to that assertion?
Brewer: Bryan County Schools has enjoyed an exemplary reputation for many years. Hundreds of people toiled decades to create what exists today. Many former leaders contributed ideas which are part of the master plan for present-day Bryan County Schools.
Parent support and involvement are, without question, of great importance. If those were the only factors, there would be no need to send children to school. A State Department of Education consultant said it best last year when he chaired the SACS committee at four of the seven schools which went through a renewal of their accreditation. I attended each of the final report meetings he held with school principals and teacher leaders. The point of the SACS visit is to establish that a school meets the standards and to give recommendations for improvement. In his introductory comments before the final report, I heard Dr. O’Neal say four times that the school could not depend on the "gene pool". Dr. O’Neal was saying that even if children come from a home where education is a first priority and all supports are provided, the school must analyze data and use best educational practices to maximize what students are able to learn. He complimented the schools and then suggested how additional comprehensive planning could improve school programs for children.
If school made no difference, it would not be important to find the best teachers. Professional journals have recently reported studies which found that longer lengths of tenure for superintendents had a positive effect on student achievement. The most important family contribution to student success is the family’s teaching that a high quality education is the most important resource in the building of a successful life. My family had very few material resources, but my mother taught me that a good education would take me anywhere I chose to go. I attended my first five years of college on a scholarship. There are resources both at school and in the postsecondary world for financial support for students, no matter what material resources a student may or may not have. Students who are recognized for exceptional work do not represent one socio-economic group; they come from all kinds of backgrounds.
I have never taken credit for the accomplishments of teachers and children, but it was my pleasure to be a part of that educational team, and I ensured that the information was reported to the public. The quality of a community’s public schools is a prime indicator of quality of life in the community. Parents make a difference. Schools make a difference. Partnership between the two enhances the efforts of each for the other.
8. It doesn’t take a genius to realize the quality of Bryan County schools helps sell houses and even with the market meltdown the biggest business in Bryan County is selling houses. Some have suggested that the roots of the buyout came from lingering bitterness over the 2006 controversy surrounding the location of a new school. Do you believe that a fair assessment?
Brewer: The board approved a contract to purchase this site for a school and then did not because conditions of the sale did not meet State Department requirements. Every decision not to any one individual’s liking yields a negative reaction that transcends the individual decision. Those negative reactions accumulate after 34 years.
9. At last year’s Bryan County News forum for BoE candidates, District 2 candidate Wanda Lane said she learned that a lot of things she blamed you for were actually the result of school board decisions and said she didn’t think the election should be about whether you stay or go. She lost the election to Dennis Seger, who said he would not have voted to renew your contract. Do you believe you unfairly took the heat for things you had no control over, as Lane suggested?
Brewer: Shame on any board candidate who runs on a promise to get rid of anyone. Campaign materials last summer did not describe promises of school improvements but rather they contained personal attacks. The first test of a candidate’s quality is to determine whether or not the person’s interest is in improving programs for children. The public has to make choosing quality candidates for the school board a real priority in order to ensure that the right people are entrusted with both student safety and student programs.
10. Considering all that has happened, what advice would you give to the next superintendent of Bryan County Schools?
Brewer: Do your homework, and then do the right thing - for students and staff. If you have to stop and think about what the decision will mean for you personally, you are in the wrong job, and everyone will know it. They will see you as a person who cannot make a decision.
- by Jeff Whitte