Incoming superintendent's challenge: Unify Prentiss County School District

By LENA MITCHELL / NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau

BOONEVILLE – Newly elected Prentiss County School Superintendent Randle Downs faces a tall order with his top priority: unifying the district.
But after more than two years of turmoil in the district, the 64-year-old retired classroom teacher, coach and administrator believes the district’s progress depends on it.
“We need everybody pulling together,” said Downs, who was sworn in Wednesday after capturing 60 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s runoff with Kenneth Chism.
“It will take teamwork among the school board, the superintendent, teachers, parents and students to make it work.”
In his new role, Downs will oversee a district with seven schools, more than 250 teachers and staff and more than 2,300 students.
Two master’s degrees – one of them in school administration – and years of experience as principal of New Site High School give Downs a good foundation for the administrative role he begins Monday.
But he has never been a superintendent and looks forward to meeting and learning from his staff.
“I’ll be looking for ways I can help them and they can help me,” he said.
Downs’ wife, Reba Downs, is a teacher at Marietta Elementary School, and his son, Jason Downs, teaches at Hills Chapel Elementary School. Combined with his own history at New Site, Downs is quite familiar with schools on the east side of the county.
Now he’ll visit Wheeler, Jumpertown and Thrasher to talk with their teachers, staffs and parents to find out more about those schools.
“It probably won’t take long to find out any issues on people’s minds, and we’ll address them as they come up,” Downs said.
One persistent and divisive issue since late 2008 has been the question of school consolidation.
The board charged then-Superintendent Matt Smith in early 2008 with recommending several district consolidation options as a cost-saving measure.
Among the options offered: Build a single, new countywide high school to replace the four existing schools; establish two high schools in the county, one on the east side and one on the west side; combine Jumpertown and Thrasher high schools and keep three high schools; and establish three high schools defined as a North High School, a South High School and an East High School.
The school board held meetings at the four county high schools over several weeks, drawing strong opposition from parents and teachers.
Despite packed school board meetings and demonstrations against restructuring plans by students, parents and teachers, three of the five board members voted in favor of three different restructuring plans between April 2009 and January 2010.
The most recent plan has been tabled – though not rescinded – and will be discussed by a school board that in January will include two new members who oppose consolidation.
The special superintendent election was required after the office was left vacant when Smith resigned Feb. 11, in the middle of his first term, saying he and his family had suffered harassment and threats.
Billy D. Stroupe has served as interim superintendent until now, and Downs will need to run in next summer’s statewide elections to retain the office.
“In the short term I’m going to try my best to get everybody on the same page working together for the children of this school district,” Downs said.
Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.