Choosing a leader who can inspire and direct a department responsible for the work of 155 districts and 500,000 students isn’t easy under any circumstance, and it’s made more difficult because the state is struggling to fully, adequately fund education during the recession.
Board members last week made an important decision that places the department and the schools in strong, experienced, capable hands for a time: It named Judy Rhodes interim superintendent.
Rhodes is an excellent choice. A former director of accountability for the department, she heads the Mississippi Professional Educators, an association billing itself as an alternative to union membership, and with 8,500 members, is the largest professional education organization statewide.
Rhodes has experience dealing with legislators, administrators, policy experts and analysts whose work shapes what can and should be done for our state’s schools.
She, by choice, is not a candidate for the permanent job.
Mississippi law won’t allow hiring anyone who does not have a requisite tenure of experience in a top school administrative position, a not uncommon requirement but one we believe is self-limiting in terms of finding and hiring the best person for the post.
If a non-traditional, qualified candidate submits an application, we believe trustees should have the option of hiring that person if proven the best choice.
While nine-year trustee Claude Hartley would not open the search to non-traditional candidates in seeking a successor to Bounds, he said last week the law should be changed to widen the pool for future searches.
Hartley sees the situation from both sides through the lens of long experience. Hartley is a widely grounded manager and entrepreneur in the private sector and had lengthy service as a National Guard officer.
Hartley holds a long tenure of involvement in public education leadership. He served 11 years on the Tupelo Public Schools board, including its chairmanship, and he has helped hire several superintendents.
We would move faster than Hartley in widening the opportunities, opening the search this year and seeking immediate statutory changes from the Legislature, but Hartley’s position that broadening acceptable experience qualifications at this juncture could be disruptive is arguably correct.
We believe it’s also arguable that bringing new eyes and perspectives into the superintendency could provide outside-the-box leadership that pushes the best ideas into greater sustained practice and success.
Hartley says competence in four key areas must be brought to the superintendency: planning, policy, politics, and passion.
Some experienced school administrators certainly posses those qualities and achievements, but so do some outside the professional education community who could want an opportunity to serve the public interest.
Some in Mississippi outside public education’s career track have life experience like Paul Pastorek, appointed Louisiana’s state superintendent in March 2007 by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
Pastorek, an attorney by education and experience, had served on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1996-2004, including the final three years as president. Pastorek had worked for 20 years as a lay volunteer in education leadership – in the private sector and on official boards. Pastorek was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as General Counsel to NASA, the chief lawyer for the agency. He helped NASA’s 2004 “transformational” reorganization. Then, he returned to the private sector.
He has many awards for other community and state civic work – just like Mississippians of similar gifts and service who would be qualified to lead the Department of Education but who have not been teachers or school administrators.
School administrators and teachers transition frequently from the education sector to the private sector and other government positions without controversy or alarm, and with success.
The same transition should be possible from other sectors into full-time education leadership in Mississippi.