School chief finalist's low scores raise eyebrows, questions

By Hugh G. Willett,

LOUDON - Loudon County school board Chairman Bobby Johnson Jr. had just returned home from the final phase of the school director search last Saturday when his phone began to ring.

Parents, concerned citizens and even other board members wanted to know how Deborah Raper, one of three finalists for school director, could have scored so poorly in the final round of questioning.

Raper scored 685 points out of a possible 1,000, compared to 842 points for the highest-scoring candidate, Wayne Honeycutt, and 808 points for Robert Lovingood.

"Some of them wanted to know if it was because she was a woman," Johnson said.

Johnson, who gave Lovingood an 82, Honeycutt a 97 and Raper a 98 in the second round, said he supports the selection of Honeycutt as new director but was surprised Raper got several poor scores.

"We were under the impression that any of the three finalists were qualified for the job," Johnson added.

Board member Larry Bass, who also gave Raper a high mark in the final round, was surprised, too.

"Four of us rated her as the leading candidate," he added.

Seven of 10 board members gave Raper 72 to 98 points out of 100 in the final round.

Three board members - Bill Marcus, Leroy Tate and Fred Walker - gave her a fraction of the points they gave any other candidate, including those eliminated in the first round.

Walker gave Raper 86 points in the first round, 19 in the second.

Marcus gave her 57 points in the first round, 30 in the second.

Tate did not take part in the first round but gave Raper 32 in the second.

"The release of the scores showed me a side of Walker, Tate and Marcus that I never ever imagined," said Sarah Dailey, a Loudon County parent who launched the Loudon School Solutions Web site last year to promote discussion of the challenges facing the county schools. "I hope Walker, Tate and Marcus will explain to me their reasoning in scoring Mrs. Raper so low and will put my suspicions to rest."

Walker doesn't have any problem explaining how he came to his decision.

"I rated all the candidates based on how well their qualifications matched the job description," he said.

Raper, a former principal, curriculum director and educational consultant who grew up in Lenoir City, does not have experience as a director of schools, Walker said. Lovingood, former superintendent in Monroe County and now superintendent in Christian County, Ky., who has 20 years' experience as a director or assistant director of schools, was given scores of 94 and 100 by Walker. Honeycutt, who has held leadership posts in the Roane County and Sangamon Valley, Ill., school systems, received a 95 and a 99 from Walker.

Marcus generally agreed. "I did not feel she had the kind of experience as a principal or as a director of schools that the job required," Marcus said. He scored Lovingood at 73 and 82, Honeycutt at 68 and 77.

Tate did not respond to requests for comment. He gave Lovingood and Honeycutt second-round scores of 97 and 70, respectively.

The board initially agreed that candidates who hadn't run a system shouldn't be considered, then reversed their decision to include Raper, Marcus said. "The board also decided to accept her application after the deadline," he added.

Six of 10 board members decided to accept Raper's application.

Given efforts made to include Raper in the selection process, Marcus said he finds it perplexing anyone could suggest a conspiracy to exclude her.

The board's difference of opinion over Raper's qualifications began early, continued through the process and was reflected fairly in the final scoring, he explained.

Raper said she was disappointed but happy to have the chance to participate.

"It was obvious there was a possibility that there was another agenda at work," she said, regarding the wide gap in scores.

As to the idea that she is not qualified, Raper pointed out one of the biggest trends in education involves the recruitment of nontraditional directors who bring experience from careers such as business or the military rather than from climbing the traditional educational management ladder.