Dual roles give Bess unusual view into schools

February 26, 2011

Scott Bess is getting used to living in two worlds.

As a young math teacher, Bess chafed against perceived rigidity in the public schools and left for a career in computers. But within a few years, he was creeping back into education, volunteering for his local PTO, coaching basketball and, eventually, landing a seat on the Danville school board.

Now Bess is straddling another divide: the increasingly contentious chasm between traditional public schools and privately operated charters.

Bess, still on the school board in Danville, also is superintendent of Indianapolis Metropolitan High, a charter IBJ is following this spring as it implements a school-wide overhaul.

His rare dual role leading both charter and community schools and his broad work experience—public and private, kids and computers—gives Bess an unusual perspective on the education-reform debate now roiling the Indiana Statehouse. (See story, page 1)

Bess’ experience also landed him on a 13-member panel tapped by the Indiana Department of Education to craft new accountability rules that will shape the future of all public schools—charters and traditional districts alike.
“People talk about the tension between charter schools and traditional schools, and the amazing thing about being in this situation has been to really take the best of both,” Bess said after rushing from Indy Met to a Danville Community Schools Corp. board meeting in mid-February.

Bess, 49, describes himself as “apolitical” on education issues—but his sympathies clearly lie with education reformers. He praises Democrats like U.S. school chief Arne Duncan and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, as well as Republican Tony Bennett, Indiana’s controversial superintendent of public instruction.

“I’ve really admired the way he’s gone about it, saying, ‘Look, we don’t have time to sit around and debate and talk. Let’s go do,’” Bess said of Bennett.

Bess is no firebrand himself. He speaks calmly, even blandly—in contrast to the sharp rhetoric of Rhee and Bennett. Instead, Bess tries to reason with and at times even joke with his listeners to make his points.

But Bess is a man of action. And under his watch Indy Met has developed the same kind of get-it-done culture.

The Purdue University grad sends work e-mails from his Droid phone while watching a Boilermakers basketball game. And he expects his staff to do much the same. Indy Met teachers work 10-hour days and carry smart phones to answer student questions on nights and weekends.

Bess puts in equally long days, and says he “tries” to leave one weekend day free of work. On Sunday mornings, he plays the drums at his church, Northview Christian in Danville, but by that evening, he’s back to his e-mail.

“If you want a job where, ‘I’m in and I’m out,’ this probably isn’t the place for you,” Bess said.

He and Indy Met Principal Carlotta Cooprider say they try to keep turnover under control by making the time demands very clear in job interviews. But some former employees of the school said burnout among teachers was common.

Family man

Despite his work ethic, Bess is always willing to take off early when one of his four kids is competing in a sporting event. He and his wife, Robin, even drove to Wisconsin this month to watch son Cory in a college track meet.

Gary Caldwell, who worked with Bess at the electric utility Cinergy Corp. in the 1990s, recalls many days when Bess would drive to Cincinnati for meetings at the corporate office, drive back to Indiana to catch his daughters’ basketball games, and then head back to Ohio for more meetings.

“I really admired him for how he juggled everything,” said Caldwell, now chief information officer at Herff Jones Inc. in Indianapolis.

Bess also coached his three daughters through basketball, beginning in grade school and continuing as the assistant coach when they were at Danville High. He would drive from his office to the school, gradually changing clothes at stoplights along the way, and hardly ever missed a practice, recalled Steve Johnson, the former head coach.

Bess handled stats and conditioning for Johnson—and he didn’t mind when Johnson pushed his daughters to perform. Once at a summer camp when Bess’ daughter Kelsey, then a freshman, didn’t hustle, Johnson let her have it.

“I got on her right from the get go, and she was crying. I said, ‘You’re going to learn, there’s no dogging it,’” Johnson recalled. “And Scott was all for that. He didn’t care about me getting on his kids at all.”

Kelsey Bess went on to be the captain of the basketball team at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. Her senior year, Scott Bess made it to all her games.

Bess also pushed the teams he managed at Cinergy, now called Duke Energy.

He led the sweeping implementation of a new company-wide software system, which normally would have required 18 months, Caldwell said. But Bess—packaging his plans under the tagline “This is Not Your Father’s IT”—instructed his team to do it in half that time.

“Initially, everybody thought he was crazy,” Caldwell said. “At the same time, it was something that you


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