Nashville hires temporary replacement after superintendent retires in wake of controversy

Nashville Community High School has hired an interim superintendent as it transitions from its last leader, who retired after controversy over a column he wrote.

Tom Hawkins will fill the role temporarily as the district searches for a permanent superintendent. The school board agreed to pay him $50,000.

He is taking over for former superintendent Ernie Fowler, whose retirement was effective on the day he became eligible to retire: his 56th birthday, Sept. 26.

The teachers union called for Fowler to resign or for the school board to fire him over the column he wrote for a Nashville newspaper Aug. 30.

In the column, Fowler recalled a memory from his high school P.E. class and described a peer’s “well-developed assets which were hidden under a T-shirt with the word ‘bullets’ sprawled across the front.”

He later apologized.

“It would appear that I may have offended some people with my column last week. Let me say that, if you are one who was offended, I sincerely apologize,” Fowler wrote in a follow-up column. “My point of view was from a typical 15-year-old boy as I tried to show the humor in the experience.”

The calls for Fowler’s resignation or removal came after the union had already publicly stated it had “no confidence” in Fowler as superintendent in May. At that time, the school board defended Fowler.

The school board later agreed to pay Fowler a post-retirement bonus of $63,540.

Hawkins, who started working Tuesday in Nashville, said the district faces a “trust issue.”

His agreement with the district is to work as superintendent for 100 days. He explained that 100 days is the maximum he is able to work because he is a retired educator.

Hawkins said his first task is to “keep the district sound financially and on course legally.” But to improve perception within the school community, Hawkins said he also wants to work to increase communication and transparency.

“You try to keep people informed about what’s going on,” he said. “Probably what’s even more important than that is listening.”

So he’s inviting the public to contact him. “Give me a call,” Hawkins said. “Come in and see me.”

He said he planned to meet with the teachers Thursday to find out what they need from an interim superintendent. “I’ll be taking direction from them,” Hawkins said.

He doesn’t plan to write a weekly column in his time with Nashville Community High School “because of the time constraints” in the agreement.

“That’s not part of the official duties,” Hawkins said. Instead, his focus will be on “providing services for the children of our community.”

“That’s job No. 1,” he said.

Hawkins had 36 years of experience in education by the time he retired as superintendent at Centralia District 135 in 2009. He continued working through regional offices of education and the Illinois Center for School Improvement.

“I like to tell people I started when I was 5 and just never left,” he said of working in schools.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes