Burnham, currently dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi, served as Mississippi’s superintendent of education from 1992 to 1997.
“I think Dr. Burnham is the right man for the right time with all we have going on right now,” said board member Claude Hartley of Tupelo.
Hartley cited work on the recently passed Children First Act, designed to give the state department more authority to work with low-performing school districts, and state budget woes as two primary areas where Burnham’s experience could make a difference.
“He brings to the job not only a wealth of experience, but he is highly passionate about improving teaching and learning in the state of Mississippi,” Hartley added.
The nine-member board met in executive session most of Tuesday in old Central High School, which serves as the headquarters for the state Department of Education. There it interviewed four unnamed finalists for the post.
About 3:30 p.m., when the board met again in open session, Chair Bill Jones of Petal announced that Burnham was the unanimous pick to serve as the next state superintendent.
“He brings so much to the table,” Jones said. “It is an opportunity we could not pass up...I have not run into anybody who worked with Dr. Burnham who did not like Dr. Burnham and his planning and organizational abilities.”
Burnham, 62, will replace Hank Bounds, who this summer became commissioner of higher education. The state superintendent’s job pays $307,000 annually as mandated by state law.
Burnham said he wanted to return to the state’s top kindergarten-through 12th grade post because he believes the board and Bounds have taken important steps toward improving education in the state.
He said he believes he has the experience to help with that effort.
He cited the Children First Act as a key component to improving education. Plus, he said, despite current budget problems, the federal stimulus program has money available to help low-performing school districts and students.
“Despite the budget problems, I guess in the final analysis I love K-12 education,” he said. “I like being around teachers and students. It was something I wanted to do in my life.”
Burnham already has the longest consecutive tenure of any superintendent since the post became appointed in the 1980s.
He took the job in 1992 but left in 1997 after an intense year in which the Legislature passed the Adequate Education Program, which changed the method of funding local school districts.
After that, he admitted, “I was worn out. I literally had nothing left.”
Burnham later moved to Henderson County, N.C., as superintendent of the 14,0000-student district there. He said he believes his familiarity with the well-respected North Carolina system will make him a better state superintendent of Mississippi.
He has been at Ole Miss for more than five years as dean of education.
“Tom Burnham is an excellent choice,” said Speaker Billy McCoy D-Rienzi, who served as House Education Committee chair while Burnham was state superintendent. “He is a great professional educator. A journeyman educator.
“I know he will do a tremendous job moving the state forward in K-12. I applaud the board’s decision.”
Board member Martha “Jackie” Murphy of Rienzi said any of the four candidates interviewed Tuesday would have been an outstanding superintendent.
“It was a valuable process,” she said. “We had to make a hard decision...We agreed Dr. Burnham had the experience and was ready to go to work.”
Burnham is expected to start his new post before the end of the year, possibly by Dec. 1.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The once and future superintendent
Who: Tom Burnham
Education: Doctorate from Delta State, undergraduate and master’s from Mississippi College
Future: Mississippi superintendent of education.
Work career: Currently, dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi, previously Mississippi superintendent of education 1992-97, superintendent in Hendersonville, N.C., and Biloxi.