It is not unusual for elected officials to serve several terms, piling up 12 years or more in the same office. But the tenure of the state superintendent of education is normally short.
Since the post was changed from elected to appointed in the 1980s, the longest any person has served as state superintendent of education on a consecutive basis is 5 1/2 years.
Tom Burnham, a Puckett native and former Biloxi School superintendent, served in the post from 1992 until 1997. Richard Thompson, a North Carolina native and former Tupelo School superintendent, served close to seven years, but did it during two non-consecutive stints.
Burnham, 62, will have the opportunity to pass Thompson in terms of total service. Burnham, now education dean at the University of Mississippi, was named the new superintendent by the state Board of Education last week.
He will earn $307,000 annually as mandated by state law for a role that his predecessor, Hank Bounds, calls amp"by far the toughest job I ever had."
But Bounds, who is now commissioner of higher education, pointed out that state superintendents in Mississippi last longer than the national average, which is 2 1/2 years, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers. The average tenure in Mississippi is about four years.
"It is probably one of the most demanding, if not most demanding, job in the state of Mississippi," said state board member Claude Hartley, who has been involved in three searches for state superintendents. "The pressure is so great because the challenges are so great.
"I think a lot of education leaders don't know how to delegate," Hartley said. "I think they burn themselves out."
Thompson, now an education consultant in his home state of North Carolina but who spends time with family in Oxford, stayed only two years his first time.
He said he left because of a combination of personal issues and frustration with the lack of school funding.
He returned six years later and left after accomplishing his goal of putting a new accountability system in place.
"Obviously, it is a high-profile job and you have a lot of constituencies - the citizens who are expecting great things and they expect you to do them," Thompson said.
"You have a political spectrum. You get your resources through the political spectrum. You have all the schools, all the students, all the superintendents. It is hard to get everybody on the same page, singing the same tune."
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the job is the immense pressure and desire of trying to improve a statewide school system that has been near or at the bottom for decades.
"I thought we made some great progress in some places," Bounds said, referring to some work in individual schools and districts.
"But on the state level, trying to move the needle for 490,000 boys and girls and 60,000 employees is tough. You are dealing with so many contributing factors."
Thompson added the dual roles of the state Department of Education, which the superintendent oversees, also makes the job tough.
"We act like we are all about service to the local school districts and we should be, but we also are a regulatory agency" carrying out state and federal laws, he said.
"It's hard to say we are here from the state Department to help, while saying 'get in line or we will take action.' "
All agree that one of the most important and difficult tasks carried out by the superintendent is dealing with the Legislature.
Burnham decided to leave after an intense 1997 legislative session in which he and the department advocated strongly and successfully for passage of the Adequate Education Program.
The AEP, which passed over the veto of then- Gov. Kirk Fordice, changed the state funding mechanism to ensure enhanced help for property-poor districts.
Burnham said that after the session he was "worn out."
"It is such a consuming job," he said. "You have to run so hard every single day. You really don't have time to recover from any of it. It continues to pull and pull on you.
"People say, why do individuals not stay more than four, five years? Physically it wears you down."
But Burnham said he believes the tools are in place to make improvements in the state school system. And for a second time, he's ready to give it a shot.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
State superintendents of education
- Dr. Richard Boyd (1984-1989)
- Dr. Richard Thompson (1990-1992)
- Dr. Tom Burnham (1992-1997)
- Dr. Richard Thompson (1998-2002)
- Dr. Henry Johnson (2002-2005)
- Dr. Hank Bounds (2005-2009)