SAVANNAH’S been very, very good to Dr. Thomas B. Lockamy Jr.
The just-retired superintendent for Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools was making a base salary of $204,000 a year when he stepped down after 11 years in the job.
He got a yearly “performance bonus” of $40,000 — itself nearly equivalent to the entire median household income in this largely impoverished school district he led.
He got a free late-model car to drive. A free computer for his home. A free cellphone. Thirty-six days paid vacation.
For all this profit incentive provided to Lockamy by the taxpayers, he was still held virtually unaccountable for the dozen so-called “failing schools” he leaves behind, now potential targets of a state takeover.
All in all, a pretty sweet deal for Dr. Lockamy. But it wasn’t enough for him.
On his way out of 208 Bull Street into well-deserved retirement, Lockamy pulled the pin on a metaphorical hand grenade and rolled it into the room as he shut the door behind him.
Even as he retires, Lockamy is pursuing an official complaint with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) against Savannah-Chatham School Board President Jolene Byrne.
He is threatening the entire district’s accreditation status over his beef with her.
This includes local students possibly losing HOPE scholarships for college.
In effect, Lockamy is holding the nearly 40,000 children in the school district hostage to his vendetta with Byrne, which even in retirement continues to burn, pardon the pun.
The selfish egomania, frankly, is jaw-dropping.
Lockamy’s history with Byrne, now in the third year of her initial term, was rife with tension from the beginning.
The superintendent infamously said at one point, “I’m over that woman” — a very revealing comment which may have indicated some less-than-enlightened views on gender equity on his part, to put it charitably.
At least one other time, Lockamy and his allies have taken their complaints to SACS.
As I see it, however, the real sticking point came when Byrne had the temerity to publicly demand this past spring to know why a major ESPLOST bid was awarded to a lower-graded contractor.
You know, doing her job and all that.
Instead of rationally explaining his reasoning, Lockamy opted to take offense and accuse Byrne of overstepping her authority in questioning his decision.
It culminated in a literal tantrum.
Lockamy threatened this past March to resign immediately, even though he had already announced his end-of-May retirement that past November!
The local daily paper, which theoretically should be on the side of proper stewardship of tax dollars — and usually is when Jolene Byrne isn’t involved in the story — essentially chose to defend Lockamy, as it did during most all of his tenure.
Related Throwing safety under the bus
Reading between the lines, what we see here is a typical Savannah story:
Byrne was elected specifically on a reform platform. She has tried to actually accomplish some reforms, has repeatedly run into the brick wall of the local status quo, has been rebuffed by the bureaucracy and the media at least as often as she has been successful, and....
Here we are, about to pay a new school superintendent an increased $300,000 salary to fix all the problems left behind by the last overpaid superintendent.
The story of Savannah in a nutshell.
So not all of this is Lockamy’s fault. Every dysfunctional relationship has an enabler. And Lockamy had many.
The daily paper, which rarely scrutinized his decisions closely, was one.
Many members of the elected School Board enabled Lockamy’s autocratic rule by heaping effusive praise (and lucrative contract extensions) on him while stubbornly holding reform efforts at bay.
The deeply entrenched, multi-generational bureaucracy at the Board of Education headquarters at 208 Bull Street — which gives the Kremlin a run for its money in terms of cynical self-preservation — is another enabler.
And Savannah’s general institutional culture of favoring the ineffective status quo at all costs was another guilty party.
Interestingly, one of the charges against Byrne in Lockamy’s accreditation complaint is that she doesn’t get along with the media, which of course isn’t even a job description for a School Board President.
For this, he is mounting a charge to strip accreditation from an entire school district. It boggles the mind, really.
For the record, Connect Savannah has always gotten along with Byrne, because we are fair to her.
Not everything she’s said and done has been peaches and cream by any means. But it’s not really that hard to find a sane middle ground between sycophantic support and knee-jerk opposition.
That is, if you’re interested in trying.
I doubt Lockamy’s effort to strip local accreditation is anything more than bluster. However, I feel 100 percent certain that the same forces which worked to enable Lockamy’s narcissism will work to do the same for new Superintendent Ann Levett, and to continue to work against school reforms.
A product of the bureaucracy at 208 Bull Street, Levett has for years been rumored to be a shoo-in for the job after Lockamy’s retirement. It’s safe to say that for about half of Lockamy’s tenure it has been widely assumed in many quarters that Levett would be his successor.
The “candidate search” which resulted in the choice to hire Levett was about as hard to predict as guessing the bad guy in a Scooby-Doo episode.
(Not even this escaped Lockamy’s toddler-like manipulations. When fuming with Byrne over the contract questions, he said, “Prospective candidates read and view all of the news of the districts they are considering. They will quickly learn about the type of board they will be working with and make a choice.” Turns out to have been a moot point given the in-house choice of Levett for the job.)
None of this is a reflection on Levett so much as it is a continuing indictment of the way this school district functions, or doesn’t function as the case may be.
Regardless of Lockamy or Levett, the real guilty party is the system that produced them, and which desperately needs change.