NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Norfolk’s troubled school system has picked the next person to take the lead, at least for now. It’s a big job, with a lot of work to do. The big question is: what can Dr. Michael Thornton offer that the last superintendent didn’t?
Dr. Samuel King and Norfolk Public Schools agreed last month to part ways, more than one year before his contract was originally supposed to end. Norfolk’s school board didn’t look far for the acting superintendent; Dr. Thornton has been the school system’s chief operations officer since January.
“It’s a privilege for me, and it’s not something I take lightly,” Thornton told 10 On Your Side.
A 28-year veteran administrator, Dr. Thornton has spent much of his career in finance. That’s a factor he thinks led to his selection as acting Norfolk Public School Division Superintendent.
“Throughout that tenure, I’ve worked very closely with my instructional counterparts because I knew that the importance of finance would have to support teaching and learning,” he said.
Thornton said during his time as acting superintendent, he wants to focus on teaching and learning and not let the leadership changes be a distraction.
WAVY.com asked how the school system would be able to focus when it seems like they get a new leader every couple years. Thornton replied, “We have highly qualified and effective teachers. We have building principals who are focused, and I think that they’ll continue to do that work.”
Thornton’s appointment comes just three months after two deputy superintendent positions were eliminated. Now in a new position, Thornton said he is focused on the students.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about my predecessors. It’s about making sure that we do what we need to do to maintain focus on children, to ensure that they have every opportunity to succeed,” he said.
Just two months ago, 10 On Your Side reported the division forfeited $1.6 million in federal funds meant for low-income students because of a missed deadline.
“As acting Superintendent, in this role, I’m going to work tirelessly to continue to create a culture that is one that will engender public trust,” Thornton said.
10 On Your Side asked Thornton why parents should trust him. He replied, “Because, number one, I’m a parent and I understand the sensitivities around making sure that our kids have every opportunity to succeed.”
Thornton, his wife of 25 years, Donna, and three daughters, ages 20, 17, and 10, live in Virginia Beach. That’s where his youngest daughters attend school. Thornton said they have no plans to move to Norfolk, but that he’s passed up other opportunities so he could stay in Hampton Roads.
Thornton’s contract as acting superintendent is only for six months. 10 On Your Side asked him if he would want to take the position on permanently.
“It depends on where we are at that point in time,” he replied. “My focus is on being the acting superintendent during this transition period. I cannot spend my time and energy plotting out a pathway and a goal of being the permanent superintendent because I will lose sight of the critical transition period.”
Thornton returned to Norfolk, his hometown, two years ago after working in several other Virginia school divisions, including Hampton City Schools and Williamsburg-James City County Schools.
Dr. Thornton holds degrees from Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech.
WAVY.com asked Thornton if he thought his background in finance was why he was selected for this position with Norfolk schools.
“I think it’s one vital area of it, but leading a school division is much more than just finance,” he said. “Finance is critical and it’s usually, for various reasons, what receives a tremendous amount of attention. So, I would think that’s one factor, and I take pride in that.”
Dr. Thornton will receive additional compensation in his new role — you can read his contract by clicking here.
There’s been a revolving door of superintendents for Norfolk Public Schools: Dr. Thornton is the fifth one since 2005. Dr. Stephen Jones lasted the longest, five years until his departure in 2010. Dr. Richard Bentley was next. He left at the end of 2011. Michael Spencer took over as interim for seven months before leaving to become headmaster of the Williams School. Dr. Samuel King took over for Spencer.
Thursday, Dr. King issued this statement on Thornton’s appointment:
First, I would like to say congratulations to Dr. Michael Thornton for being appointed as acting superintendent effective as of the first of May. I feel that he is an individual that will provide strong, effective leadership and continue to move forward with the mission and vision for Norfolk Public Schools. I look forward to working with him through the transition to make it as seamless as possible.
Thomas Calhoun, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, also released a statement:
I will support Dr. Thornton as I would any other superintendent. I can’t help but wonder about the timing of the whole affair. The removal of both deputy superintendents and the promotion of Dr. Thornton right before the blowup of the Title One affair appears to be choreographed to me. It just seems that replacing Dr. Simmons with Thornton just in time for him to be named interim is too much of a coincidence. Two months ago there were three women over Thornton. If I were a woman, I would have several questions. All of them for the school board.
According to NPS Spokeswoman Elizabeth Mather, the division is still arranging who will take over the chief operating officer position Thornton is leaving to be acting superintendent.
The school board is preparing to issue a request for proposals for a search firm to assist the board in locating and choosing a new superintendent. The board expects to select a search firm by April 15.