For Eric Thomas, the beginning of the end for a short-lived state program he led to help struggling schools in Georgia came in the form of a meeting that never happened in September 2019.
Tensions had simmered in the two years since the start of the program called the Chief Turnaround Office, set up to help chip away at improving poor grades and classroom experiences for more than 150,000 Georgia students. The would-be September meeting marked a chance for Thomas and Georgia’s state school superintendent, Richard Woods, to patch up simmering ill will. But the two went back-and-forth in emails over who else should attend, ultimately scuttling the meeting altogether.
That month, state education officials quietly launched an audit to probe the program’s contracting and travel-pay practices. Several rural schools under Thomas’ watch soon missed out on federal money that went to other schools instead. Two large districts had already pulled out of the program. By December, Thomas resorted to secret meetings with a sympathetic colleague for inside information on what the future held for his program, according to documents reviewed by State Affairs in an open-records request. A month later, he resigned, and the program folded.
“It is well-known that the Superintendent’s Office has a hostile relationship with the Chief Turnaround Office,” Thomas said in a statement with his resignation letter in January 2020. He stepped down about five months later. “Over the past six months it became clear that the (two offices) … were not going to coexist.”
In its brief lifespan, the Chief Turnaround Office tapped a team of in-house education specialists and outside contractors to work on shaping up some of the lowest five percent of Georgia public schools. They fanned out to 21 struggling schools from Savannah to the Alabama state line, encompassing nearly 10,000 students.