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Elected District Chiefs in Ga. The Latest To Become Extinct

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As a boy growing up in north Georgia in the 1940s, Trigg Dalrymple literally lived at school. His father was an elementary school principal, and their home doubled as a classroom for the 1st and 2nd grades.

Now Mr. Dalrymple runs one of Georgia's top-rated school systems, the 17,000-student district in Fayette County outside Atlanta. Voters have made him their schools chief three times--a crowning achievement for a lifetime spent in education as a teacher, coach, and principal.

But soon the 55-year-old superintendent likely will be booted from the job he has held for 12 years. A new state constitutional provision strips Georgia voters of the right to choose their local superintendents and invests that authority instead with district school boards.

The shift, which leaves only a handful of elected local schools chiefs nationwide, is shaking up Georgia's education ranks. The Fayette County school board, like many in the state, is exercising its new power and searching nationwide to fill its top job.

"It's sort of like a big fruit-basket turnover going on down here," said C.B. Lord, the policy director for the Georgia School Boards Association.

Political Risks

Observers say the change is good for education. But it's bad news for a number of homegrown superintendents whose popularity as teachers, principals, or coaches propelled them to office. Easing such living legends out of office has been awkward at best for Fayette County and a few other districts--and politically dangerous at worst.

Two candidates opposing incumbent Fayette school board members in next month's Republican primaries are protesting Mr. Dalrymple's likely ouster. One of those challengers, 39-year-old Robbie Cannon, said that getting rid of Mr. Dalrymple makes as much sense as the World Series champion Atlanta Braves baseball team firing manager Bobby Cox.

"I've been in the county 32 years," said Mr. Cannon, who played high school football with Mr. Dalrymple as his coach. "I know where the system was, and I know where it is now, and a lot of that change has to do with his leadership."

Members of the school board have said they will retain Mr. Dalrymple if he proves the most qualified candidate, but that's not seen as likely.

"This superintendent wants to be anointed, not appointed," Woody Shelnutt, the board's chairman, said at a recent candidates' forum.

A Dying Breed

The elected superintendent is a breed nearing extinction. Of the nation's roughly 15,000 local schools chiefs, only 315 are elected--all of them in Southern states, according to the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

Georgia moved to do away with elected superintendents in 1992, when voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring that all school boards appoint superintendents by Jan. 1, 1997, rather than allowing appointment to be a local option.

Proponents of the change argued that it would rid the position of politics and allow Georgians to recruit the best talent nationwide to run their schools.

At the beginning of this year, about 106 of the state's 180 districts needed to make the move. Many of those will give their current chief executives a contract, state officials said.

But as many as 45 districts have launched searches, some aiming to net candidates from across the country.

"It has to be a national search," said F.D. Toth, the dean of the education college at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga. "In some rural counties, there just wasn't a person qualified to run the schools. I think that's reflected in our students' achievement."

Mr. Toth is advising the Lowndes County school board in south Georgia as it sifts through about 65 applications, more than 50 from candidates outside the state.

Some hope the expanded pool of eligible candidates will boost the number of women and black superintendents. Already, two districts have picked women to run their schools for the first time.

But don't expect the state's education leadership to change too much or to lose its Southern accent, Mr. Lord said. "These boards are made up of lay people whose first concern is the budget. They're not certain that someone who's not been a part of the system of funding in Georgia can move in and get up to speed."

Credentials Needed

Perhaps what will change most are the r‚sum‚s of the state's superintendents. Traditionally, voters put in office a well-liked principal or winning football coach.

But now, those superintendents will be competing with educators whose pages-long r‚sum‚s are crammed with degrees and central-office experience. And when the voters' choice is found wanting, the parting is not always sweet.

In Murray County, school board members last fall told Superintendent Mickey McNeill that he would not be a candidate for the appointed job.

Board members and Mr. McNeill say they disagreed about the school's role in providing social services, but Mr. McNeill, 46, still can't figure out why he's being let go.

"I don't really know why because they haven't told me," he said. "I read the job-vacancy announcement, and well, that's me."

Mr. McNeill has announced his resignation and accepted a principal's job in a neighboring district.

A Bitter Exit

Mr. Dalrymple's likely departure from the Fayette County post has been more acrimonious. The school board has refused his request for an 18-month contract when his elected term expires in January.

He says he wants to tie up loose ends, including a $70 million building program. Board members say Mr. Dalrymple merely wants his son, a high school junior, to graduate with his father's name on the diploma.

"I thought they owed me 18 months," Mr. Dalrymple said last week. "I guess not."

"I don't believe they got the politics out of the job with this idea," he added. "You've just changed the politics. To be an appointed superintendent, you have to politick the board members, not the people."

Mr. Shelnutt, the board chairman, said the board will consider Mr. Dalrymple a candidate. But he also said the members are seeking fresh ideas to make the district one of the nation's best.

"We're one of the best in Georgia," he said. "But what are we talking about when we say that? The best of the worst?"

"I don't think the current superintendent is capable of pushing us any further," he added.

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