The Hattiesburg City Council and the Hattiesburg Public School District Board of Trustees' newest member said they want independent decision making from board members, better budgeting and stronger leadership to move the district forward.
“The current leadership of our Hattiesburg Public School Board has failed our city, our children and our community," Councilwoman Mary Dryden said. “Our school system, the outstanding one from which you (Carey Varnado) and I and our children graduated, the school system that Hattiesburg property owners support with their 56.54 mills in property taxes, is now failing in other ways.”
New board member Carey Varnado agreed that helping to hire the district's new superintendent is the main reason he accepted a position on the board.
"The new superintendent has got to be a big priority," Varnado said. "That's really the primary reason I wanted to serve on the board at this point. I want input into who that new superintendent is going to be. We need someone, frankly, who, as one department head told me, can do more with less. That's a tough job, but it's got to be someone who combines the skills of financial management with educational leadership."
While Varnado said choosing the right leader is essential, he said the board cannot leave all the work to the superintendent.
"We have to be proactive as a board in what we do," he said. "We can't sit back and just let the superintendent bring issues to the board meetings. I plan to be very proactive. As I said, I've already talked to a good many teachers and administrators within the system. I plan to do that a lot more. I want to put a lot of time and effort into trying to help turn the situation around."
He also said getting the district's finances in order will be critical to restore trust in the school district and its leadership.
"We need to be open," Varnado said. "We need to be candid with people because I think there has there has been a credibility problem. Because of this recent financial problem, there is a credibility problem at Hattiesburg Public Schools right now, and I want to see what I can do to help change that. The first thing we have to do is get a handle on why the financial problem arose. I've been meeting with the interim superintendent Dr. Ladner, department heads and talking to others in the community to try to get a handle on the problem. The problem resulted from, frankly, a lot of inattention by a lot of people. So it can be rectified. I'm confident that the board can turn the situation around, it's going to have to be done very quickly. It's going to have to be done with some financing methods that perhaps have not been done very often in Mississippi, but it's primarily going to have to be done more long term with getting a good handle on budgeting."
Part of Varnado's plan for being more open with the community is to limit the amount of time the school board spends in executive sessions.
"I think the board has gone into executive session an excessive number of times," he said. "I want to try to limit executive sessions of the school board to just those things that really must be under law handled in executive session because it's very important in order to get community support for the community to know what is happening within the schools."
Another way the city council wants restore credibility in the school board is for Varnado to make independent decisions.
"I trust that you will be independent of us when it comes to doing the right thing for our children because we haven’t always chosen, you know, to do the right thing," Councilwoman Deborah Delgado said. "It depends on the heart of those who are responsible for making sure that our children are truly educated. And I trust that you will do the right thing toward our children no matter what the outside pressures and influence may be. Please, look at the best interest of our children.”
Varnado said, "I do plan to be a very independent member of the board, and I told Mayor DuPree that in our first meeting. I'm not going to be influenced by outside sources. I'll make my own decisions, and I hope that all five members of the board will do that."
Varnado said his first board meeting will be May 3, and the board will have a special meeting on May 5 to assess superintendent applications.
"It can be a great district," he said. "I'm not sure it's great anymore, but I think we can make it great again."