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New hire, old issue at FAMU
The K-12 research school's new director is the brother of an influential trustee.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 20, 2008
Charges of cronyism are flying again at Florida A&M University after the brother of a powerful trustee was hired to head FAMU's troubled K-12 research school.
At the recommendation of president James Ammons, the university board of trustees voted Dec. 31 to hire Ronald Holmes as the school's director, even though an interview committee scored Holmes lowest among the three finalists.
Holmes is an assistant principal at an Atlanta-area high school. He is also the brother of the Rev. R.B. Holmes, the trustees vice chairman and an influential player in Tallahassee politics.
The family connection "just blasts you in the face," said Michael Wallace, who chairs the school's advisory council and has four children enrolled there. Favoritism is part of the mix in other places, he said, "But the sad thing with FAMU is, it's so blatant."
Two days before the new superintendent is slated to start work, hard feelings remain. Some wonder whether the controversy will divert attention from improving student performance at the school, which got an F from the state last year after only 36 percent of 370 students passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading.
Still others worry about another stain on the school's reputation - dogged by past charges of questionable hiring - and wonder whether another potential example could attract unwanted attention from oversight bodies.
Last month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools extended FAMU's probation for six months. Meanwhile, a state task force is shadowing its fiscal progress.
"I don't think favoritism has anything to do" with the recent hire, said trustees chairman Bill Jennings. But, he added, "I'm aware in the past there have been stories about cronyism at FAMU. And I'm going to do everything I can, that if it did happen, it won't happen again."
FAMU's Development Research School, one of four of such schools in Florida, has close ties and shared responsibilities with the university. In recent years, it has suffered from declining enrollment, high teacher turnover and poor student performance, prompting Ammons, who took the helm in July, to declare a turnaround there one of his priorities.
Ronald Holmes declined comment, saying Ammons "wouldn't want me to respond." But R.B. Holmes said he had nothing to do with his brother's hiring.
He said he did not mention the job opening to his brother, did not participate in the search process, and did not talk with Ammons or other trustees. When his brother told him he planned to apply, R.B. Holmes said he tried to dissuade him "because of the skepticism, because of what people may say."
"If I were him, I wouldn't do it. He doesn't need that kind of drama," he said. But "he has the right to do what he wants to do. He's a tremendous young man when it comes to academics."
Jennings dismissed the criticism by pointing to Ronald Holmes' qualifications.
Holmes has a bachelor's, a master's and a doctorate from FAMU and another master's from Bowling Green State University, according to the Web site from Banneker High School in College Park, Ga. Holmes has been an assistant principal there for 12 years and, according to Jennings, earned a reputation for boosting test scores.
"I would have a different feeling if ... it was someone who was clearly not qualified," Jennings said.
Holmes has "met all of the qualifications and is a seasoned professional," added FAMU spokeswoman Sharon Saunders in an e-mailed statement.
Jennings said when Ammons told him about Ronald Holmes' connection to the Rev. Holmes, he thought the link could become an issue but did not mention his concern to Ammons. Instead, he said he asked Ammons if the Rev. Holmes or other trustees had talked to him about the selection, and Ammons assured him they had not.
"It looks like my initial reaction about a controversy proved to be true," he said.
But the board's role is to hold Ammons accountable for results, not to tell him who to hire, he said.
Trustees unanimously voted to give Ronald Holmes a three-year contract. His salary will be $110,000.
Eight people applied for the job after it was advertised on the FAMU Web site, beginning Sept. 17, according to the FAMU communications office. A six-member committee whittled the list to three candidates, and then an eight-member committee - assembled by provost Barbara Barnes and vice president Kirk Gavin - interviewed them.
The latter committee rated the candidates on 14 questions. Holmes scored slightly lower than the other two finalists.
Thomas Jackson, who until recently was chairman of the research school's advisory board (which is separate from its advisory council), said he was invited by Gavin to participate in the screening and concluded none of the candidates were qualified. He said he resigned from the board after Holmes was hired.
"Somebody on the committee asked Dr. Holmes the title of his dissertation, and he couldn't give us a title," said Jackson, a former dean of the FAMU College of Education.
Six members of the interview committee either could not be reached or declined to comment.
One of the other finalists, Richard Williams, said he supports Ammons' decision, even though the committee gave him the highest score.
"The president still has the option to choose," said Williams, a FAMU alum and administrator in the Miami-Dade school system.
Both Jackson and Wallace, though, remain frustrated about the search process, saying parents, teachers and staff members were not given an opportunity to meet the candidates or outline their concerns.
"We don't know if (Holmes) was or was not the best candidate," Wallace said. "In all fairness, he may have been that person. But we don't know. We weren't given the opportunity to get buy-in up front."