HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The Hattiesburg Public School District Board of Trustees included community leaders in its search for a new superintendent for the first time ever.
"We've done the open, public portion before, but we've never brought community members into the interview process," said Jas N Smith, public relations director for the district. "We felt like we wanted a broader participation from the community in a way that was a little more in depth, that gave them a better look at the candidates and could give us valuable feedback on the way that it could impact their organization, their group in the city. The city is impacted in a lot of different ways by the schools. It impacts businesses and home prices and all of those kinds of things, so we want to make sure that we get the input from the community, even from groups that aren't necessarily tied to strictly to students or education. We still want to hear what they think and what they value, so that when we make this decision, it's in the best interest of everybody in Hattiesburg."
Included in the group are Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, Hattiesburg City Council President Kim Bradley, Area Development Partnership President Chad Newell, Forrest County NAACP President Clarence Magee and University of Southern Mississippi Dean of Students Eddie Holloway.
"We listened to questions that were asked by board members, as well as the responses that were given by the three aspirants for the position," Holloway said. "The questioning was wide spread. It covered the full gamut of needs and skill sets that the superintendent would need, so I think it was beneficial for us to hear. Based on those comments, I think one would be able to determine one's readiness, one's very readiness and one's might not be so ready, so for that particular reason, I think it did give input by virtue of observation of the candidates as they answered those tough questions that were posed by the board of trustees' members."
Smith said, "A lot of different ideas and different backgrounds that came together to give us a good overview of what the city's concerns may be, and where their priorities are."
Holloway said, "Each person present was given the opportunity to provide comments in writing, so I'm sure those comments will be weighed by the school board members."
Along with getting feedback on the candidates, Smith said he hopes this kind of involvement from community leaders helps restore some public trust back into the district.
"We are definitely trying to be more transparent about the process and what the district is doing and having more voices be heard by the school board in making this decision," Smith said. "This is something that's very important not just to the school, but to the city as a whole, and the more people we can get input from and to hear from, the better."
Smith said the board is also trying to give the candidates a clear picture of the struggles, like budget, attendance and academic issues facing the district that will become the new superintendent's responsibility.
"We want to make sure that the person that's coming in, they're going to be dealing with a lot of challenges that are facing the district right now," he said. "So we want to make sure that they have a full understanding of what they are dealing with and what they are looking at, the sort of responsibility they're taking on as the leader of the school district. So the board is going out of their way to make sure that they fully inform each of the candidates, and especially the one who is finally selected, prior to that person accepting the job."
Holloway said, "As the school board asked questions, I think the skill sets relative to budget, relative to leadership traits, relative to guidance, insights, visions based on past experiences, based on proven abilities where by they are able to showcase what they've done that would be representative of what is needed in this school district."
Smith said each of the final three candidates is qualified for the job, and now the board, with the help of this superintendent search committee, is determining who fits best with the district.
"These final candidates have a wealth of information and experience that they are bringing to the table," he said. "I think any of the candidates that we have gotten down to would make excellent choices and be an excellent pick for the district. The question now is: What fits best with the direction the district is hoping to move in? What is the board looking for as far as leadership style? And what pieces from their background and from their knowledge base spoke most to the district in their ability to lead the district through these challenges that we are facing?"
Holloway said, "Hattiesburg is made up of a number of moving parts: business, hospitals, city government, county government, the Area Development Partnership, parents, neighborhood associations. So if the students are from those catchment areas, then naturally, those opinions should be valued in the selection process. By virtue of those that were selected, it did give the board an opportunity to hear form the community's leadership or at least representatives of the community leadership. It's so important to have the community at large in mind and to demonstrate that the community is valued, and I think those members there that participated could give the wider community thoughts and approval that their greater opinions were considered."