The Hattiesburg Public School District officially has an interim superintendent to help work through the district’s financial woes.
The HPSD Board of Trustees unanimously approved John Greg Ladner to temporarily head the district following James Bacchus’ resignation from that position earlier in December.
“Two weeks ago, I think it was (December) eighth, we received the resignation of Mr. Bacchus, and because of the important issues we’re dealing with now, we thought it was very important to go ahead and put an interim in place that can help us through this period of transition,” said Marcus Cathey, school board president.
Ladner is both a former superintendent and interim superintendent. He retired in 2010 after 15 years as superintendent in both the Lumberton and Pearl Public School Districts. He was brought in as the interim superintendent for Moss Point Public Schools in 2011.
“When these positions become available during what you might call precarious times of the year, (the Mississippi School Board Association) are always there to offer a list of candidates,” Ladner said. “You’re trying to come in and build leadership capacity among the, in this case, administrators that existed before I arrived, while I’m here and then after I’m gone.”
Ladner said his interview process with HPSD was one of the most rigorous he had ever been through.
“I know that the school board is very serious about trying to resolve some of the issues that have arisen,” Ladner said. “We will work very closely with the community. We want to regain any support that we’ve lost. Anything that we can do to remain very transparent throughout this process is what we’re wanting to do.”
Cathey said, “Being a board member is not a full time job for any of us, but over the last few weeks, it has become that. He’s been in the posture of an interim before, and our needs and his skill set just really seemed to match.”
Cathey said the most pressing need is getting a handle on the district’s finances.
“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s no secret to anybody that that’s our main priority right now – to make sure that we get a hold on our financial situation and make sure that our district stays strong for the future.”
In a statement released Dec. 18, Cathey said, “In the 2014-2015 school year, the district’s expenditures exceeded revenue by over $3 million. This resulted in an ending fund balance of approximately $800,000 in the general funds.”
The Mississippi Department of Education requires statements of revenues and expenditures be presented to district boards monthly.
WDAM 7 News looked through past school board minutes and these financial presentations are listed.
Cathey agreed that financial information was presented, but that information was not correct.
“When we approved our 2015-16 budget, it has now become evident to us that the information that we got was either completely inaccurate or just at best did not paint a full picture,” Cathey said. “And so the 2015-16 budget was set on faulty information.”
When asked if he knew where that informational breakdown happened, Cathey said, “Do I know where the breakdown happened? Specifically? You know, I don’t even want to get into just calling names or things of the past. We found out the information now that we need to know, and we’re going to move forward.”
Cathey said that kind of informational disconnect among school board administration is “absolutely concerning,” but said he feels confident the district can move forward in the right direction with Ladner’s help.
“I cannot tell you how excited I am to have a person of Dr. Ladner’s caliber assisting us during this transition process,” Cathey said.
Ladner said he has dealt with other districts that were in precarious financial situations, and he is ready for the challenge.
“To get yet another opportunity to come into a school district and help and be a part of moving forward is very exciting to me,” Ladner said. “Let’s face it, school districts across the state now are facing financial woes. Now, having said that, we’re not going to point fingers around here and get negative. We’re going to deal with these issues. We’re going to do it in a graceful manner with character, and we’re going to do it in a positive manner. And we’re going to win. We’re going to prevail.”
Both Cathey and Ladner agreed that combing through the district’s staff and budget from top to bottom is the best way to prevail.
“We’re looking at absolutely everything,” Cathey said. “Everything will be evaluated because, as we said earlier, students are really the center of our work here. We want to make sure that everything points in that direction.”
Ladner said, “You know, the thing about the Hattiesburg School District, they have dreamed big. They have some fantastic programs for their children that engage children in so many positive ways, but you know, sometimes dreams are hard to finance. There’s going to be an extensive budgeting process going into this next year because, most certainly, I do not want to leave this district in even a similar situation to where they are now. It’s just going to be a matter of making sure that our expenditures are not greater than our revenues. We’re going to have to guide the community as well as the district through maybe some reality checks.”
Cathey said he hopes the district has a permanent superintendent hired by July 1 to guide the district into the 2016-17 school year.