At a meeting of the Columbus Exchange Club Thursday, Columbus Municipal School District Board president Jason Spears said the biggest challenge facing the board is finding ways community members can get involved with the school district.
Spears joined the school board in 2012 when the district was facing financial upheaval — teachers were picketing the municipal complex at that time, he told Exchange Club members. Now that the finances are back in order, — revenues are at $28 million and the board has $3.5 million more in reserves than the legal requirement, he said — the district faces new challenges.
“One of the things that I would say the biggest challenge is helping people understand that you can engage on any level that you want to engage on,” he said. “Instead of us as a school board marketing all these different programs or all these different opportunities to say, ‘This is what we have’ … it’s finding somewhere, whether it be this club or whether it be you as a business or an individual to say, ‘Well, once a year, I’ll get to come do this.'”
Community involvement has been a theme during CMSD’s search for a new superintendent after the board voted last year to not renew then-superintendent Philip Hickman’s contract. Mississippi School Boards Association, which the board hired to conduct the search, has held multiple public meetings for stakeholders this week. At those meetings, attendees agreed both that the new superintendent must be engaged with the community and the community itself engaged with the district.
Spears said the board had plans to come up with a “menu of opportunities” to help stakeholders be more involved once they review feedback from stakeholders meetings, particularly feedback from teachers.
“It’s a failure on our part that we haven’t been more visible in showing how people can engage,” he said. “So once we’re really able to come together with the leadership and the district and say, ‘Where are our biggest deficiencies?’ Then at that particular time we can start articulating, ‘These are the things we need help on.'”
Club members had plenty of questions for Spears about the search for a new superintendent, including how the search process would work and how long the new superintendent will have to raise the district’s D accountability rating from Mississippi Department of Education.
Spears said MSBA will accept applications for the superintendent’s position until 5 p.m. today. The search firm will then compile a report including both the applications and reports from the stakeholder meetings held this week, which Spears said he hopes the board will receive in the next couple of weeks.
“One thing just from the very beginning that we’ve been very deliberate in doing is we want to keep this as open and inclusive as possible,” Spears said.
He said he hopes the report on the stakeholder meetings will be published either in local media or on CMSD’s website.
Once the board receives the list of candidates, he said, they will narrow it down to a final five or so and hopefully hold another open forum where those finalists could present to the community.
MSBA spokesperson Tommye Henderson, who held the stakeholder meetings this week, previously told The Dispatch whether such a presentation was held would depend on whether the candidates wanted their names public. While Spears did not contradict her, he did specify the board would prefer someone more open.
“If there’s that reservation for some reason or another, I wouldn’t say it counts against them, but it’s certainly not what we are working toward finding,” he told The Dispatch after the meeting.
The Dispatch has submitted a public records request for the number of candidates who applied and the names and resumes of final candidates once those candidates are decided upon.
Spears added the superintendent likely wouldn’t have a time frame in which he or she must raise the district’s grade level. Instead, he said, the board would consider incentives such as pay raises to encourage the superintendent to keep raising the grade.
Those who did not attend stakeholder meetings this week but wish to give the board their input on superintendent search may fill out a survey at msbaonline.org through April 5.