photo credit: WSB

After voters in 152 of 159 overwhelmingly said no to the state take over of schools in November of 2016, Governor Nathan Deal, through the appointed State Board of Education, names a Chief Turnaround Officer (CTO) through the law passed earlier this spring known as the First Priority Act ( HB 338).

The State Board and the Education Turnaround Advisory Council worked to select Dr. Eric Thomas, who is the Chief Support Officer for the University of Virginia’s Darden/Curry turnaround program. Thomas also served as Chief Innovation Officer for Cincinnati Public Schools.  He has also been a teacher and principal. Thomas is expected to be hired on Oct. 25th.

Dr. Thomas was chosen out of a list of 10 candidates and a finalist among three as the top candidate. The other two candidates were Dr. Eric Parker, Superintendent of Eastern Kentucky University’s Model Laboratory Schools and Dr. Lannie Milon, Jr., a leader at a high school in Houston, worked in turnaround efforts in Houston and Jefferson Parish who has ties to Atlanta Public Schools.

Each candidate presented to the Board and Council from a given scenario. In two separate groups, State Board members and Council members then interviewed each of the candidates. The State Board received information from the Advisory Council in Executive Session and deliberated on the finalists.  Negotiations and final checks have to be fulfilled before Thomas becomes the Cheif Turnaround Officer.

The Chief Turnaround Officer (CTO), based on the First Priority Act, along with new staff, is expected to intervene in the state’s lowest 5 percent of performing schools. Over $1 million dollars has been appropriated to the new CTO.

Elected State School Superintendent Richard Woods removed longtime educator Avis King and replaced her with a new Deputy State School Superintendent for School Improvement, Stephanie Johnson who has experience in turning around schools in the Atlanta Metro area. The School Improvement Division has over $13 million in funding with a variety of experienced staff members to carry out the function of school improvement and turnaround failing schools as well.

The new CTO will be under the supervision of the Governor appointed State Board of Education and not the elected school superintendent.

Key aspects of the First Priority Act:

  • Appoints a Chief Turnaround Officer (CTO) who reports only to appointed State Board of Education and is part of the GA Department of Education’s internal organization. Furthermore, the elected State School Superintendent and an Education Turnaround Advisory Board made up of education special interest groups, consult with the newly appointed CTO.
  • The CTO uses data ( tests scores and other trends) by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement along with “any other factors deemed appropriate” by the CTO to intervene in schools on an annual basis who show chronic failure. These schools are selected at the discretion of the appointed CTO. These schools are said to in the bottom 5 percent of Georgia’s lowest-performing schools.
  • The law has a provision that allows schools who are identified as low-performing have a two-year benchmark. This criterion is evaluated if the schools are implementing the CTO’s recommendations for improvement or the school can propose their own improvements which must be authorized by the State Board. If the school is not complying at this two-year mark, the local school board could lose flexibility provisions in their contract with the State Board of Education (SBOE).
  • If one-half or more of the low-performing schools are in a single district receives an unacceptable rating for five or more years, the SBOE will hold hearings to discuss removal of the members of the local board of education within the district. Then SBOE will then provide a recommendation to the Governor if removal of local board members is needed.
  • This law does not provide for extra funding provisions needed to carry out the duties and responsibilities of the CTO. Funding was provided in separate legislation.
  • Before any interventions can occur within low-performing schools, a needs assessment of the school, and its services must be reported back to the CTO by “Turnaround Coaches” assigned to the school.


  • If schools are receiving interventions, they could include the following:
    • A continuation of the implementation of intensive school improvement plan.
    • An appointment of a new school management or personnel and the removal school personnel.
    • The school can be converted to a state charter school.
    • Choice of a better-performing school within the local district for students
    • Possible restructuring of school governance.
    • Operations can be conducted by a successful school system or through a private, non-profit entity approved by the State Board of Education in which the State Board will pay for the service of the third party operator. If the school district does not use an approved operator, the local school board will pay for that service.


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Jeremy Spencer grew up in rural South Georgia and has served as a healthcare provider, high school science teacher, school administrator, and state education official. Jeremy is currently the market and content manager for All on Georgia-Camden and Glynn Counties. Jeremy’s focus is local news, statewide education issues, and statewide political commentary for the All on Georgia News Network. Jeremy has served as an education policy analyst for local legislators and state education leaders as well as a campaign strategist for local and statewide political campaigns.  Jeremy holds degrees in science and education from the University of Georgia, Piedmont College, and Valdosta State University. He and his wife have lived in Camden County for 17 years, and they have two teenage children. Jeremy and his family live in St. Marys, GA and attend the Harbour Worship Center in Kingsland.


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