Tupelo superintendent answers questions on district

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo schools are not expected to release any teachers in order to save money next year, Superintendent Randy Shaver said Thursday during the first of a series of public question-and-answer sessions.
More than 70 people, including school administrators, crowded into a room at the Hilton Garden Inn for the event, and Shaver fielded questions on topics like class size and webcams.
Shaver said he plans to have similar sessions every month, varying the times and locations to allow more people to participate.
In answering one of those questions, Shaver said it appeared the district would not have to let teacher contracts expire.
School leaders throughout the state have been told to prepare to receive 15 percent less state funding next year than they did this year.
Many superintendents have said that loss of money will force them to cut teachers, and Shaver had previously said it appeared likely that would happen in Tupelo.
But Thursday, he said the situation had changed.
Thirty-one teachers have filed paperwork indicating that they will retire or leave the district. Because most of those positions will not be filled, the district will save enough money to operate on its smaller budget, Shaver said.
Districts can’t lay off teachers, but they can decide not to renew their contracts.
“The most important thing is a quality teacher in a classroom,” Shaver said.
Attendees at Thursday’s event wrote questions on slips of paper as they entered the room, and Shaver answered eight of them after spending about 30 minutes giving a presentation about the state of the district.
“I’m glad they had this, and I hope that next time, they use the automated phone system to let more parents know about it,” said Ann Blair Huffman, whose youngest child is a senior at Tupelo High School. “I think his idea is great about meeting at different locations and different times.”
The first question was among the hottest, “How big will you let classes get?” Shaver has previously said that state funding cuts will jeopardize the district’s past commitment to maintain a 15-1 student-teacher ratio for kindergarten to third-grade classes.
If state funding is cut as much as is expected, the district won’t be able to keep the number of teachers it had this year, and class size will have to increase, Shaver said Thursday.
He said research indicates that there is a diminishing rate of return once class size falls below 18-1.
“In a severe budget situation, we may need to look at bumping up that average closer to 18 so we can give a fair education for all students,” Shaver said.
On other topics, Shaver said:
– The district has a hiring freeze for non-essential personnel until it knows how much money will be available in next year’s budget. Essential personnel are required counselors, principals and classroom teachers for math, science, English, social studies and health and physical education at some levels.
– The computers in Tupelo’s laptop initiative don’t have software that allows administrators to spy on students using webcams. A district in Pennsylvania currently is being sued for using the cameras. Shaver said Tupelo’s computers will have GPS software that will allow officials to track them if they are lost or stolen.
– The district is working to align its curriculum so that all students will have learned the same things by the time they converge into the same school in sixth grade.
– The best teachers in the district should be assigned to the students who need them most, not necessarily the best students.
“That is a student-centered, student-focused decision, not adult-centered, adult-focused,” Shaver said.
Donnie Peterson, who has a daughter in eighth grade at Tupelo Middle School, said he was most interested to hear Shaver’s answer about the computer software.
“The biggest question I had on my mind was answered,” Peterson said. “I was really concerned about that, and he made me feel a lot better about that.”
Annette Reed, who has daughters in third and fifth grades at Lawhon, said her biggest concern is about class size.
“I was interested in Dr. Shaver’s comments that he didn’t think there was a big difference between 15-to-1 and 18-to-1,” Reed said. “I’m encouraged by that.”
The next event is scheduled for March 25 at Milam at 5:30 p.m.
“I think it is tremendously important,” Shaver said. “I’m doing what I said I would do, which is to take the schools into the community and give everyone an opportunity to ask questions.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.