Chickasaw County Superintendent Kathy Young Austin hadn’t planned to retire at the end of this year.
Having served more than 15 years in the elected position and 38 years as an educator, Austin had planned to seek another four-year term this fall.
As her district continued to face state budget cuts and federal and state testing changes, however, her opinion began to change.
“I would really like to stay four more years, but I didn’t,” she said. “The reason I am leaving is I am not ready to face another testing change. I’ve been around 15 and a half years as a superintendent, and about every three or four years, we have major changes with the testing. About the time we get on a level playing field, they change it.”
Austin is retiring in December, to be replaced by Betsy Collums, the lone candidate who sought election as the leader of Chickasaw County’s 600-student school district.
Austin’s departure is just one of many in a region that is seeing a large turnover of its school chiefs. Come January, more than 40 percent of the superintendents in Northeast Mississippi’s 32 school districts will have less than a year of experience in their current job. Seventy five percent will have four years of experience or less.
That total is not atypical across the state. Fifty four of Mississippi’s 151 school districts, or 36 percent, will have superintendents with less than a year’s experience in January, said Michael Waldrop, executive director of the Mississippi School Boards Association. The MSBA tracks the state’s superintendents and helps many districts with their superintendent searches.
Waldrop said the number of new superintendents could rise as high as 60, depending on the results of November’s elections, in which 13 incumbents are facing challengers. January 2012 is used as the benchmark time because that is when newly-elected superintendents will begin their new jobs.
Waldrop said he believes that there are several reasons for the high turnover. For one, technology puts more pressure on superintendents, he said, because people can go to the Internet and post observations that may or may not be true.
Then there are mandates like No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards. NCLB is a federal law that requires all students to reach a certain level on their state test scores by 2014. The common core standards are new, more rigorous curriculum guides that are being adopted by most states. They will result in more difficult state tests.
“Everyone agrees that you do need more rigor on instruction, but the mechanics of moving that forward and making sure you don’t lose the children, it is a paradigm shift, and it also takes time,” Waldrop said. “…I think we will come out with a much stronger public education system. We are adjusting to that, and that puts tremendous pressure on school leadership.”
Northeast Mississippi will have at least 13 new superintendents in January. That number could rise as high as 15 if Lee County incumbent Mike Scott and Calhoun County incumbent Michael Moore are defeated in November’s election.
Two incumbent superintendents were already defeated in their primary election, and three, including Austin, chose not to run for re-election.
Mississippi’s superintendents are either elected or appointed, depending on the district. In general, leaders of county districts are elected and those in municipal school districts are appointed by school boards.
Although this is an election year, that hardly accounts for all of this year’s superintendent turnover. Eight districts with appointed leaders have either recently replaced superintendents or will have done so by January.
That total includes four retirements, one departure for another school district, one request for early leave from a contract, one departure for health reasons and one death.
Three of those eight newly-appointed superintendents are only interim leaders, meaning more changes could come soon.
“The biggest factor is that superintendents have had enough years for retirement, and have been faced with the constant barrage of mandates and changes,” said New Albany’s Charles Garrett, who has been in his position for more than 10 years. “Put those two things together, and retirement can look pretty good to them.”
Although some elected officials – sheriffs, judges, legislators or congressmen – spend decades in office, that usually is not the case with superintendents.
The average superintendent tenure in Mississippi tends to be between three and four years, Waldrop said. That hold trues in this region.
Junior Wooten in North Tippah is by far the longest serving superintendent in Northeast Mississippi, with 22 years on the job, dating back to April of 1989. Next is Clay County’s Mae Brewer, who began in January 2000, and three superintendents who started in 2001: Garrett, Corinth’s Lee Childress and Houston’s Steve Coker. The only other superintendents who started before 2008 are Tishomingo County’s Malcolm Kuykendall and South Tippah’s Frank Campbell, who began in 2006 and 2007 respectively. That total does not include Holly Springs, whose superintendent’s tenure was not immediately available.
Although the new leaders bring fresh ideas, something is also lost in the turnover, Childress said.
“One of the nice things about stability is you have that ability to have that institutional knowledge of the district and some previous background knowledge that you can look at when making short-term and long-term decisions,” he said.
Meanwhile, Waldrop said, fewer people are applying to become superintendents when appointed positions become available. A decade ago, a large school district in the state would draw about 50 or 60 applicants. Today, it would garner about 12 to 30, he said.
The nature of those applicants has also changed. Fewer central office administrators tend to apply to become superintendents today. Instead, it is mostly building-level principals who seek that job.
“That tells us those who are in central office see that pressure and those real high, and in some cases unreasonable, expectations, and they aren’t as interested as they were eight or 10 years ago,” he said.
Fewer superintendents are leaving their districts to become superintendents in other districts, Waldrop said.
“It does concern me,” Childress said. “I think one of the keys to the success of any school district is strong leadership. We as educators are going to have to work hard to develop a pool of individuals who are interested in being superintendents.”
Come January, at least 13 of Northeast Mississippi’s 32 school districts will have superintendents with less than one year of experience and at least 24 will have leaders with four or fewer years. Here is a look at superintendent tenure in the region.
Junior Wooten, North Tippah, April 1989
Mae Brewer, Clay County, January 2000
Charles Garrett, New Albany, January 2001
Steve Coker, Houston, July 2001
Lee Childress, Corinth, July 2001
Malcolm Kuykendall, Tishomingo County, July 2006
Frank Campbell, South Tippah, July 2007
* Michael Moore, Calhoun County, January 2008
* Mike Scott, Lee County, January 2008
James Covington, Oktibbeha County, January 2008
Scott Cantrell, Monroe County, January 2008
Ken Basil, Union County, January 2008
Kenneth Roye, Pontotoc County, January 2008
Chester Leigh, Aberdeen, May 2008
Gearl Loden, Amory, July 2009
Russell Taylor, Nettleton, July 2009
** Mike Vinson, Okolona, April 2010
Randle Downs, Prentiss County, November 2010
*** David Meadows, Tupelo, April 2011
*** Beth Sewell, Starkville, April 2011
*** Brian Harvey, Oxford, May 2011
Ronnie Hill, Baldwyn, July 2011
Todd English, Booneville, July 2011
Burnell McDonald, West Point, July 2011
Karen Tutor, Pontotoc City, July 2011
Adam Pugh, Lafayette County, January 2012
Jack Gadd, Benton County, January 2012
Betsy Collums, Chickasaw County, January 2012
Jerry Moore, Marshall County, January 2012
* Faces an election challenge in November
*** Interim superintendent
Note: Superintendents in Itawamba County and Alcorn County will also be determined in November’s election. There are no remaining incumbents in either of those races. Tenure for Holly Springs Superintendent Irene Walton Turnage was not immediately available.
Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal