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Interview: Hugh Golson
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Savannah native Hugh Golson spent 24 years teaching in the Savannah/Chatham County school system -- most of them at Jenkins High School -- before running for board president four years ago.

He’s presided over a period of great tribulations for the school board, some self-imposed and some not: The introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act, an acrimonious relationship with former Superintendent John O’Sullivan, probationary status (and exoneration), and the agonizing debacle of the Laidlaw school bus contract.

Golson nearly missed an opportunity to run for re-election when he initially finished in third place in the Nov. 7 election. However, a recount revealed enough miscounted votes for Golson to narrowly claim second-place ahead of former Savannah Mayor Floyd Adams.

Golson will face the top vote-getter from Nov. 7, Joe Buck, in a runoff to be held this Tuesday, Dec. 5. We spoke to him last week.

 Connect Savannah: How come so many people were interested in your job? It seems like the biggest headache in the world.

Hugh Golson: Oh, it’s one of the hardest jobs in Chatham  County. I get to order around two secretaries and nobody else (laughs). The hours are grueling and the subjects aren’t always pleasant. For instance, I did eight hours last week on student expulsions. I guess these other candidates couldn’t wait to embrace this great lifestyle (laughs).

 Connect Savannah: Is it safe to say the biggest single issue you’ve had to deal with is when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) put the system on probation?

Hugh Golson: I would go one step beyond that, and say that the most noticeable thing that happened is that we came out as a “School Board of Distinction” only a few months after getting off probation. Over the past year that was the star we were reaching for to pull us out of the morass. It shows we have the highest ideals, are making progress toward reaching them, have all our rules posted appropriately, and our making all the right relationships. It basically shows we’re the anti-micromanagers.

My campaign four years ago informed the board they’d received a letter from SACS. Superintendent O’Sullivan withheld the letter! I was probably the first person to bring attention to the letter.

Connect Savannah: For years we’ve become accustomed to constant feuding between superintendents and the board. Is there comparatively little feuding going on right now or has everyone just learned how to hide it better?

 Hugh Golson: There’s absolutely no controversy. The lovefest continues (laughs). We’re so nauseatingly friendly it hurts.

I’m immensely proud of the superintendent I hired! Dr. Lockamy is a great straightforward person. He knows how to work the board, he involves everyone in what he’s thinking long before it becomes formalized, and he knows to have enough dialogue to make sure board members understand something long before we bring it to a vote.

We give him latitude. All the hires he wants he gets. We’re working in a great harmonious relationship at the highest standards for school boards, which our award for “school board of distinction” shows.

Connect Savannah: You and the school board actively promoted the E-SPLOST penny tax. Now that the measure has passed, how much latitude will you have in determining how that taxpayer money is spent?

Hugh Golson: The initiative definitely spells out which projects are to be funded. Obviously we don’t have all the land acquired, and there are still many options coming before us. One thing we’re looking at this month is green buildings. We’re taking a trip to Charleston to see if the long-term savings from green, energy-efficient buildings might be worth the front-end investment.

There are several parameters to E-SPLOST we need to look at. We need to look at the programmatic side of things, and frankly a lot of that has to do with the physical placement of buildings, the literal geography of the district itself. That’s one of the ripples that come out of these SPLOSTS. 

Connect Savannah: Is the district still experiencing an overall decline in student numbers, and if so how does that impact your plans for E-SPLOST?

Hugh Golson: No, the population is actually very stable. This year enrollment jumped 230-something students. We’re at the beginning of a trend of more population coming into the district. Over the years we’ve talked to a lot of demographic experts, and they’ve told us so many contradictory things. Now we’re talking to other experts as well, from Savannah Electric to developers -- people who can give accurate indications as to how many people are really moving into the community and where.

Another thing about that is our dropout numbers are not accurate. Previously there have been different methods used to evaluate the number of dropouts, so we’ve had overlaps of numbers. Next year we’re changing that and we’ll get a good fix on exactly what the numbers are. One thing that’s important is to make sure that on the state level when we recover a student and put them into a skills-bearing program and find a good fit, they don’t count as dropouts. They should be counted as graduates, which they are.

Connect Savannah: Like many educators, you’ve been critical of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Given that it is the law of the land, how are you and the board managing to work within its framework, and perhaps work around its shortcomings?

Hugh Golson: Basically it is the template under which we operate. We’ve spent several years retooling our whole institution to meet the fact that No Child Left Behind has goals that must be met appropriately or funding doesn’t proceed. Dr. Lockamy and his staff have fine-tuned it to the point where we’re down to eight schools that are in the “needs improvement” category out of a total of 53. That’s far better than Augusta, Macon or Columbus. Next year we’ve set the goal of having zero “needs improvement” schools.  I goad Dr. Lockamy about that on a weekly basis. That’s got to be our goal.

I could philosophically argue against No Child Left Behind, but the truth is it does hold your feet to the fire and does set a bar you have to meet. There’s the relatively new requirement for highly-qualified teachers, so we were forced to dismiss a couple of hundred of our teachers. That was rather sad, but the law is stringent.  

 Connect Savannah: One of NCLB’s goals is closing the achievement gap between subgroups. How is progress going here?

Hugh Golson: We do it very well at the lower years. There’s good intensity there. Then they sort of fall off the turnip truck around grade 7 or so, and faster if the student is African-American.

 Connect Savannah: Yet much of the anger in the board’s direction comes from predominantly white schools. What’s your take on the dissatisfaction that some May Howard parents are voicing, that their school performs significantly better than other schools yet receives fewer resources from the district?

Hugh Golson: May Howard is somewhat unique because it has no program per se, like a magnet or specialty program. That’s one reason the superintendent told the school the other day to come up with what it is you’d like to be and we’d gladly explore the costs around getting that done. Part of the solution around all of the islands right now is to look closely at the programs being offered, and see if we’re offering equitable programs that families might want to shop for more.

 Connect Savannah: Is it difficult to sell parents on a school system that, according to the raw numbers at least, is near the bottom of the bottom-ranked state in the nation?

Hugh Golson: What numbers are you referring to?

 Connect Savannah: Well, the perennial discussion of Georgia being 49th or 50th in the country in education.

Hugh Golson: I think a lot of that talk is generated by the ranking of SAT scores, which is a totally invalid way to compare states and compare districts. We’re far from 50th. We are not ranked at the bottom, and frankly as urban school districts go we’re not that much below the state average. We’re hanging right about where Georgia is, just a few points below.

That’s not sufficient at all, of course. We want to push our students, and we’re certainly doing that in terms of adding more AP classes, more International Baccalaureate classes, things like that.

 Connect Savannah: Regardless of whether you or Mr. Buck wins, there will be a white male school board president and a white male superintendent running a school system that’s almost 70 percent black. How do you make that situation work?

 Hugh Golson: Oh, I have many, many bridges to Savannah’s African-American community. My campaign committee is very diverse and we have many, many contacts across all kinds of different groups in Savannah.

I’ve grown up in this school district, and through all these years I’ve spent 8, 9, 10 hours of every day of my life working among all the people of this district. I reflect the diversity of this community and I embrace each and every child. The issue is providing for these children and making sure we bring forward every resource for them, and that’s an effort that isn’t affected by skin color.

Frankly most students couldn’t tell who the school board president is if he walked in the door. That’s the least important person in their lives. Now, if you walk in the building with the mayor of Savannah, they’ll all scream his name (laughs). 

Hugh Golson faces Joe Buck in the Dec. 5  runoff.