It came down to relationships.
That’s the message Maryville City School board members gave Monday night when they unanimously chose assistant schools director Stephanie Thompson to assume the role of her boss, schools director Mike Dalton, when he retires at the end of the year.
Less than an hour after school board members picked her over Greeneville Schools Director Lyle Ailshie, Thompson was asked what she planned to do her first day on the job.
“Obviously one of the first things I’ll do will be to meet with principals. We’ll be looking to get principals together and talk with school board members about the direction they want the system to go,” she said.
Thompson said the process through which she was picked was a tough but good one. “I’m pleased and honored,” she said. “The other candidates are top quality educators.”
When asked how she intended to deal with the perception discussed by board members that her getting the job was a foregone conclusion, Thompson said she wanted to continue the process the school system had been following in the last year by getting community input from the public, the principals and the business community. “We need to continue to get input about the direction of the school system,” she said.
Thompson said the system has many challenges, including opening new schools and preparing students to compete globally. “It’s going to take a lot of planning,” she said.
The new schools director was quick to thank Dalton. “I appreciate what Dr. Dalton has done. He has been a great mentor and a great role model,” she said. “I’ve got his cell phone number,” she added, with a laugh.
The board members gathered in the Ruby Tuesday room at Maryville High School with more than 50 residents watching to choose the new director of schools. The list had been whittled down to three: Thompson, Greeneville Director of Schools Lyle Ailshie and Mike Winstead, director of accountability and curriculum for the Knox County School System.
Board chair Carolyn McAmis asked each of the board members to give their top two, which narrowed the list to Ailshie and Thompson.
Board member Mark Cate said the board needed to consider where they wanted the system to go in making the choice.
“The question is there is Stephanie, who we know a great deal about. We know her strengths and weaknesses. We don’t know that about the other candidate,” he said. “The question is, does Dr. Ailshie separate himself enough from Stephanie.”
Board member Christie Sayles was quick to answer. “From where I sit, I would perceive it is not. There is a trust factor involved,” she said.
Cate said he heard from many people who said this was an opportunity for the system to take the next step, and Thompson’s relationships could help that process. “You’re talking about making things easier if you already have that trust,” he said.
Board member Doug Jenkins addressed perceptions about the process. “A lot of folks have come to us with concerns and questions that this is a ‘done deal.’ I hope people see that it has been a struggle,” he said. “There were concerns that Stephanie isn’t as much of a visionary as Lyle was.”
Jenkins said Lyle Ailshie has done a good job with Greenville’s school system, but he liked Thompson’s answer when asked about her vision for the system. “I think she was being more humble and noble in not expressing her vision and being willing to listen,” he said. “I’m for Stephanie.”
Jenkins said he has been a resident in Maryville for 16 years and loves this community. “Lyle has lived in Greenville for 21 years, and his wife has lived there all her life. Stephanie has been here all her life,” he said.
Jenkins suggested board members help Thompson emulate Ailshie. “I think we take what Lyle brought to the table and make Stephanie better,” he said.
McAmis echoed Jenkins concerns. “My only problem for Stephanie was there were concerns for status quo. That does bother me. They want fresh ideas. This is a perceived weakness,” the board chair said. “The other concern is she’s stepping out of a role. I talked to her about stepping out of this role, and she knows it’s going to take time.”
Garner voiced his concerns in siding with Thompson. “I don’t disagree it will be difficult. I don’t if know Lyle has the capabilities of stepping into this situation,” he said.
Denny Garner said he was concerned Ailshie would not be as open to using the site-based management philosophy that allows each school in the Maryville system to have a certain level of autonomy. “There were concerns he would not be able to relinquish (control) for our style of management,” he said. “It’s a tough decision, but I don’t like to gamble.”
Garner said it’s much easier to get through challenges with the connections and relationships Thompson has. “I don’t see how Lyle could catch up. You go with him, and you’re already behind the eight ball,” he said.
“Both will have a learning curve,” Jenkins said. “Stephanie’s will be shorter.”
Cate also said he was concerned some would think the decision to vote for Thompson was a done deal. “We know it’s not true,” he said.
“It’s because she’s the best candidate,” Garner said.
After a ballot vote, McAmis announced the winner was Thompson and that the vote was unanimous. At that point, the majority of the audience erupted in applause.
“I feel we had three excellent candidates,” said Cate. “In the end, I really think Stephanie is the person we need right now as we move to the next level.”
Garner echoed Cate’s thoughts. “I think we chose the right candidate.”