Superintendents deal with unique setting in Tupelo

TUPELO – Being Tupelo’s superintendent of schools is a unique position, say educational leaders who have held that job in the past.
The community is one that prides itself in its education, supports the system and pays close attention to it. That can be a blessing. It can also be a challenge.
“Tupelo is a good community to work in,” said Mike Walters, Tupelo’s superintendent from 1990 to 1995. “It is very difficult to work in the community, but I had a great experience there. They had very high expectations for me, but I think it made me a better person.”
Tupelo will soon find itself looking for a new superintendent after the school board announced on Tuesday that it was negotiating with current Superintendent Randy Shaver for an early release from his contract. Those negotiations are in response to a request made by Shaver.
Since 1987, Tupelo has had five different school system leaders, for an average tenure of 4.8 years. That trails the national average, according to a study by the National Council of the Professors of Educational Administration.
That study found superintendent tenures averaged six to seven years, regardless of the district’s size or location.
Walters, who is now chief executive officer of the JBHM Education Group, said Tupelo’s passion for education can cause stress for superintendents.
“Trying to meet the community expectations for your involvement with them, while at the same time trying to give the amount of time to the organization that it needs to be successful, that is a real challenge,” he said.
Having so much support is certainly not a bad thing.
“I thought it was fantastic to have that much support of our public education,” said Mike Vinson, who led Tupelo’s schools from 1995 to 2002. “I never considered it a threat. I always thought it was an asset.”
Richard Thompson, Tupelo’s superintendent from 1987 to 1990, has been a superintendent in North Carolina, was twice Mississippi’s state superintendent and was a deputy state superintendent in North Carolina. He said that nowhere did he see community and business support like he did in Tupelo.
“I found Tupelo’s community support and concern and sometimes pressure to be something really positive for me,” Thompson said. “I tried to work with all of the different aspects of Tupelo, and I really loved the business support.”
Whoever does become Tupelo’s new superintendent, however, will find himself or herself in an environment that is unlike many other districts.
Vinson said the key to having success in Tupelo is a willingness to communicate with the community and to be open. Walters said such a person must be able to understand and negotiate political issues.
School systems in “most big towns are run by the (education) professionals and the politicians,” said Claude Hartley, a former Tupelo School Board member now on the state Board of Education. “In this town, the citizens are a very powerful entity.”
‘Quick fix’ expectations
Another former long-time school board member, Doyce Deas, said one reason that Tupelo’s superintendents are under a microscope is that it is a reflection of world today, where “everybody expects quick fixes.”
“I think it’s because we’ve always had such pride in our school district, and everybody wants it fixed overnight,” she said. “We’ve held our superintendents to such high standards, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. compared Tupelo’s relationship with its school superintendent to the University of Alabama alumni association’s relationship with football coaches.
“They have very high expectations and it’s apparently difficult to meet those very high expectations for everybody for a substantial period of time.
“The good part of that is that Tupeloeans really want and care about having a great public school system, and that’s wonderful. But it does put a lot of pressure on the superintendents.”
Those high expectations have recently sparked a rather tense and heated situation. The school district’s decision to reassign its high school principal, in part, led to community protests and City Council demands that the superintendent resign.
Those are things Tupelo will have to overcome as it searches for its next education leader.
“The kind of superintendent that Tupelo is going to want is going to be one who has lots of options,” Walters said. “That person will want to know how stable is this and how contentious might this be and can I win in this situation.
“The next superintendent may be thinking, if I am going to be under a microscope and I have to make some tough decisions to reach the expectations the community has for me, I can’t have the leaders of the community second-guess those decisions.”
Still, Walters said, that person will also be coming into a community that already supports education, noting it is much more difficult to build that support where it doesn’t already exist.
“It is a great community, and I know they will work through these issues, and they will be fine,” he said.
Reporter Emily Le Coz also contributed to this story. Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678- 1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal