Ahead of Columbus City Schools’ “Day in the District,” NBC4 is profiling the three finalists for superintendent on May 8-10, 2023. Read Angela Chapman’s profile here.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A finalist for Columbus City Schools superintendent left his administrative position with the Georgia Department of Education amid allegations of workplace discrimination, violating vendor contract policies and office mismanagement.
With nearly 30 years of experience in education, George “Eric” Thomas is a frontrunner for Columbus’ superintendent position. He spent nearly two decades at Cincinnati Public Schools, during which he developed a program for at-risk male students and launched a “district of choice” enrollment model. Afterward, he became chief support officer at the University of Virginia and oversaw a school improvement leadership program.
Then, in 2017, Thomas became Georgia’s first Chief Turnaround Officer, tasked with helping struggling school districts across the state.
But he hasn’t left every job in the best of circumstances.
Thomas resigned from his role as chief turnaround officer in January 2020, days after the Georgia Board of Education received a 64-page internal audit into Thomas’ management of the office. That audit has never been made public, as Thomas sued – and later settled with – the state Department of Education to block its release, calling it a “sham internal investigation” motivated by the state superintendent’s displeasure that the office was not under his purview.
But a letter obtained by NBC4 from Georgia’s inspector general notes that her office agreed with the audit’s conclusions, calling for “swift, prompt employment action regarding Dr. Thomas.”
“Overall, it appears that the Chief Turnaround Office was mismanaged and that policies and procedures in place were routinely ignored by Dr. Thomas,” Inspector General Deborah Wallace wrote to the state board of education’s chairman in a letter dated Jan. 28, 2020.
According to the letter, Thomas “inappropriately interfered” with the request for proposal process by telling employees to award contracts to specific vendors. The request for proposal process typically requires prospective vendors to answer a standardized questionnaire so the purchasing party – a school board or government office, for instance – can evaluate multiple proposals.
The letter also noted that, under Thomas’ leadership, multiple employees were not reimbursed for travel expenses, contrary to state policies. The inspector general’s office recommended immediate reimbursement of travel costs.
The Georgia Board of Education asked the inspector general’s office to open an administrative investigation, but Wallace declined, stating that, “The [Chief Turnaround Office] Audit findings are well supported by documentation and were thoroughly investigated by [Department of Education] staff.”
The letter alludes to allegations of racial discrimination reported by current or former employees, but because employment disputes are beyond the scope of the inspector general, the office could not investigate such complaints.
The offices of the inspector general and attorney general opened an investigation to determine whether Thomas violated state laws, but in 2021, the attorney general closed the investigation, finding no evidence of “prosecutable criminal conduct,” according to a letter Thomas gave to NBC4.
Thomas declined to comment, instead sending copies of the letter and the state board’s settlement statement.
After Thomas’ resignation, the Chief Turnaround Office was dissolved, and its duties now fall under the deputy superintendent for school improvement. In December 2020, the Georgia Board of Education released a statement, saying that it reviewed the audit and decided to not take disciplinary action against Thomas.
“The Board thanks Dr. Thomas for his professionalism during this matter and his passion and commitment to Georgia’s students, families, and communities,” the board’s statement read.
In his lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Education, Thomas claimed that the state superintendent, Richard Woods, “blatantly refused to collaborate” with Thomas’ office by refusing to meet with him and by not providing adequate funding to districts partnering with the office.
The complaint further detailed how Thomas “began complaining almost monthly” about the state superintendent’s failure to work with the Chief Turnaround Office, including by not notifying the office of funding opportunities. Woods’ office declined to comment.
Thomas claimed the state Department of Education retaliated against him for his complaints about Woods and asked that the audit not be made public before the state board issued its determination.
“To the extent the report contains untruths, Dr. Thomas’ reputation could be irreparably damaged if this report is published before the necessary process occurs,” Thomas’ complaint read.
Thomas is one of three finalists for Columbus City Schools superintendent, a search launched after Talisa Dixon announced her retirement from the district last December. The district and the search firm it hired, Ray & Associates, have declined to release application materials for its top candidates.
Columbus City Schools declined to comment.
Since his resignation, Thomas has been a national consultant for the University of Virginia. In 2020, he also became president and CEO of Shift Consulting, which consults with school districts on digital learning, talent management, leadership development and district improvement.
Thomas has been a finalist for superintendent of multiple school districts across the country, including in Rochester, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; and, in 2019, Canton, Ohio.
Last July, Thomas became associate superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. Minneapolis Public Schools did not return a request for comment.