Ever since breaking the story for The Wilson Post about former Director of Schools Dr. Tim Setterlund’s answers to questions about having a drink and then driving his Board of Education-issued vehicle on Jan. 16, I’ve been asked in a myriad of ways, “What do you think about the situation?”
My standard reply to everyone, except my husband, was, “I’ll write a column when it’s all said and done. Ethically, I don’t think it’s proper for a journalist to give his or her opinion while in the midst of reporting a story.” I’m more of an old-school journalist when it comes to things like this.
Well, Saturday, it was done. Dr. Setterlund signed a release and settlement agreement, received a nice severance package and waived his right to ever sue the BOE or the County Commission over his employment or resignation.
Now, I can voice my opinion.
In a nutshell, I believe Dr. Setterlund’s short tenure was due to his own actions, and here’s why I say this.
A friend of mind asked me again my thoughts after everything had been published online Saturday evening. When I told him via private message on Facebook that I felt Dr. Setterlund, while being an educational visionary, brought it on himself, this is what he wrote back: “He may have been a good, long-term thinker, but you don't walk into the neighborhood bar, pick a fight as an outsider and walk out without a scratch.”
He summed it up better than I could.
I do believe Dr. Setterlund is a great visionary when it comes to education and related policies. A person doesn’t have his high school named to Newsweek’s Top High Schools in America for three consecutive years – 2008, 2009 and 2010 – without knowing his stuff.
And you’re not named Tennessee PTA Outstanding Principal of the Year in 2004, as well as Tennessee’s Principal of the Year for 2010-2011 by the state Department of Education, without doing most things right. So he deserves credit where credit is due.
So, if his problem wasn’t his education credentials or vision, what was it?
It was this: he failed to take the time to learn about our community, our values, our pace of life and to build key relationships with members of the County Commission that could help him secure the funding needed to implement his vision for our schools.
Dr. Setterlund arrived too confident that he didn’t need to do any of those things before implementing his vision. So, he started making changes in personnel, policies and operations without first gaining the support of the majority of his shareholders – the people of Wilson County.
Essentially, the director of schools is the CEO of the largest business in Wilson County with approximately 1,500 employees. And as such, he had every right to come in and put individuals into positions he felt were needed to accomplish his goals for the school system.
Anyone who is familiar with the business world sees this type of thing happen all the time, so that should not come as a surprise.
However, the difference in this situation is that most CEOs do not live amongst their shareholders. They see the majority of them once or twice a year at shareholders’ meetings – at the most.
That can’t be said for a director of schools. Out of 42,578 total households in Wilson County, approximately 75.3 percent are households with children under the age of 18 in them, according to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
That’s a large portion of the county’s 118,000 residents. And even those of us who do not have children in the school system, pay taxes in one way or another that fund its operation. Hence, we are all shareholders in our local school system.
So, when a new director arrives and starts making changes right away, without first taking the time to listen and learn about the community he was hired to serve, he is going to face some resistance and hear from some unhappy shareholders.
But instead of listening to those who tried to advise him to slow down, to learn more and to build relationships, he forged ahead doing it his way, all the while thinking people would come around.
As I told him the night that the story broke, he failed to listen to people who tried to advise him. Oh, he heard the words, but he didn’t listen, and there’s a huge difference.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, hearing means “to be aware of (sound) through the ear; to listen to (someone or something); to be told (something),” while listen means “to pay attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc.; to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important or true.”
The bottom line is Dr. Setterlund failed to listen to our community and to learn about it, and that, ultimately, cost him his job.
So, in my humble opinion, he did it to himself.
Amelia Morrison Hipps is a freelance writer, columnist and consultant. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.