Tupelo has been without a permanent superintendent since Randy Shaver was given an early release from his contract last April. The school board has been working with a search firm, the Mississippi School Board Association, to help it fill that position and hopes to find a new leader for the district sometime this spring.
In the meantime, David Meadows has been serving as the district's interim leader. He said he is not seeking the full-time job.
That next superintendent will step into a district in need of healing. Shaver's departure came amid community unrest over his decision to replace a popular high school principal, and a recent personnel decision to fire the high school choral director has renewed those old scars and divided community members.
The district faces data that reveals its black and low-income students are scoring worse than black and low-income students in other parts of the state, and it must work with the community and parents to find a way to raise achievement of these students. At the same time, parents of high-achieving students say that their children should be pushed more and that the district should be known for the accomplishments of its top students.
"My most important attribute I would like to see is someone who can build a consensus to support his plans to make necessary changes," said resident Jim Newman, who attended both of the fall's community stakeholder meetings held to give the school board input on what people were seeking from the next superintendent.
"I think his most important characteristic is being able to bring a consensus around his proposals," Newman said. "I can't see anyone succeeding without that ability."
Those stakeholder meetings were held in late September for 10 diverse groups, from business leaders to clergy and from teachers to former school board members.
According to a report on those meetings submitted by the MSBA to the school board, many of the groups cited the necessity of "outstanding communication skills."
Groups talked about the need for a "change agent" who could address "changing demographics and lower test scores" while also having the "political savvy" to get diverse groups to support proposals. They called for someone with the "courage to make decisions that come with change" and someone who could build morale in the district. They cited the importance for the new leader to bring strong discipline skills and to support teachers.
Those interviewed last week had similar visions for the school district's next superintendent.
Zell Long, the chief professional officer of the Boys amp& Girls Club of Northeast Mississippi, said she would like to see a person of integrity who is fair-minded, has worked in the classroom and could relate to students.
Long said the new superintendent should make it a priority to reach student demographics that aren't doing as well in the classroom and help them improve.
Mike Daniels, the father of a Tupelo High School freshman and a fifth-grader, said he believes the superintendent should be focused on challenging the high-performing students to reach higher levels.
"The new superintendent should strive to make Tupelo a mecca for the best and brightest students in our state," he said.
Louis Conley, a loan officer at Renasant Bank and the father of a 3-year-old boy, wants someone familiar with the school district's rich history and who's focused on getting it back to that level.
"I think it should be a man or woman of integrity, someone with strong leadership qualities and brave enough to stand up for what is right in the face of whatever they might meet and apply the same rules and regulations across the board for all situations and for all the kids of the district," he said.
Tupelo's achievement gap has been magnified by the district's changing demographics. A district that had 80 percent white students in 1970 has 50 percent black students today. Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said that it would be helpful for the school district to hire someone with demonstrated success and experience working with similar demographics.
Reed said the new superintendent should also be a good person, who's a good communicator with everyone interested in the school district, is energetic and has a sense of humor.
Tupelo school board Vice President Eddie Prather has been the board's point person for the process. Prather said the MSBA has been reviewing applications and interviewing candidates since the Dec. 9 application deadline. It will make a report to the school board soon, perhaps at the next meeting Jan. 17, outlining the candidates who have applied. The board will work with that report to decide who it will interview.
"My opinion is that it would make sense to look at someone who is used to working with different demographics and who is used to a mixed population," Prather said. "We want someone who really has a background in improving student achievement."
Prather said he feels it is important for the district to attract someone who will raise expectations for all students, both high- and low-performers.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church, acknowledged that the expectations for the new superintendent are "very high." Stephens is a former school teacher and Episcopal school headmaster, and his wife is currently a teacher in the school district.
He said it will be important for the new leader not only to understand the educational challenges, but also to understand community dynamics and to be able to bring stakeholders together.
"From my perspective, the collaboration piece is huge," he said. "We need to get everyone at the table and pulling oars together, so we can move together in a way that we are able to accomplish the goals that need to be accomplished.