By Jeff Amy
JACKSON – State Superintendent Carey Wright has appointed three top-level executives, the first step toward reorganizing the Mississippi Department of Education.
Kim Benton, who had been chief deputy state superintendent for instructional enhancement and internal operations since 2012, has been named chief academic officer. Todd Ivey, who had recently been the head of educational accountability, and before that the longtime head of financial operations, has been named chief operations officer. Pat Ross, who had been the director of accountability services, has been named chief school improvement officer.
This year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill giving Wright the power to fire department employees without cause or a hearing for two years beginning July 1. That power has been granted in the past only to the state agriculture and corrections departments. Normally, all other agencies have to follow state Personnel Board rules.
The department has more than 400 authorized employees, but some of those are attendance officers or teachers at state-run schools including as the Mississippi School for the Blind, the Mississippi School for the Deaf, the Mississippi School for the Arts and the Mississippi School for Math and Science.
The new law exempts attendance officers, who still cannot be fired without cause. Any new employees the department hires will immediately be covered by civil service rules, which typically protect employees from firing after a one-year probation period.
Past reports have called on the department to do more to directly assist school districts – an effort the department is pushing forward by hiring contract employees to help train teachers. Wright says she’s looking at past research on the department’s structure and plans to unveil further plans over the next few months.
“What’s missing?” she said. “What positions do we need to add?”
For example, she said the department will create an office to oversee early-childhood education under Benton. The department is in charge of funding and overseeing a small number of groups that are providing 4-year-old prekindergarten classes at public schools and other sites.