February 26, 2017 12:16:24 AM
All three candidates vying to become Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District's next superintendent agree the school district has the potential to be one of the best public school systems in Mississippi.
On Thursday, the district began the process of introducing the shortlist of candidates -- Tullahoma, Tennessee, School District Superintendent Dan Lawson, Scott County School District Superintendent Tony McGee and Tupelo School District Assistant Superintendent Eddie Peasant -- to various school and community stakeholder groups.
The SOCSD Board of Trustees held official job interviews in executive session for Peasant and Lawson Thursday and Friday, respectively, and will interview McGee Monday.
Trustees could begin deliberations on a possible offer following McGee's interview, but school board President Jenny Turner said the district has scheduled a meeting Tuesday to discuss the candidates and how to move forward as needed.
"We have three very good candidates with various backgrounds and experiences, and that's a good position to be in," she said.
Lawson, 61, brings to the table something the other candidates cannot claim: two decades of experience as a single school district's superintendent.
While he is the only out-of-state finalist, Lawson said both Starkville and his current Tennessee town are similarly situated. Both enjoy the influence of higher education -- Tullahoma, which has almost 20,000 residents, is home to the University of Tennessee Space Institute and Motlow State Community College -- and a nearby military base, as the town is home to the Arnold Engineering Development Complex, an Air Force Test Center located at Arnold Air Force Base.
"In general, every community faces similar challenges when it comes to education. We find that education is too often linked to a family's level of income. In nearly every community, the idea of closing the gap between your economic haves and have-nots is always a challenge. It's in my home today, and I would expect the same (in Oktibbeha County)," Lawson said. "Problems in education are generally not location specific, and they are dramatic outliers if they are."
Lawson said he was turned on to the upcoming vacancy by a call from a consultant, who gauged his interest in the job. As the dialogue ramped up, he said, so did the interest.
"I loved the size of the community, and certainly having the assets and resources that the university brings to the table is a huge advantage for the district. There are great opportunities with the planned partnership school, and that school could be monumental for the county and state as a whole," Lawson said. "... A consolidated effort with everyone rowing the same direction and focused on solving problems, not personal issues, makes for an effective leadership team."
The Tullahoma School District served 3,535 students at seven schools in the 2015-16 academic year. Statistics from the Tennessee Department of Education state the district had a 93.5 percent graduation rate that year, and its students' average ACT composite score was 21.1.
The district's per-pupil expenditure for the 2015-16 academic year was $9,846.20, TDE statistics state.
Prior to Lawson joining Tullahoma in 1997, he served as a principal and district superintendent with the Mountain Grove, Missouri, School District.
He earned a doctorate from the University of Mississippi in 1993 and holds degrees from the University of Missouri and Missouri State University.
Becoming SOCSD's next superintendent would be a sort of homecoming for the 50-year-old McGee, who earned an undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Mississippi State University.
The Scott County school leader took over his role in 2015, when the district held a "D" rating from the Mississippi Department of Education and was coming out of state conservatorship.
One year later, SCSD earned a "B" designation.
"The challenge here was to try and lift the morale of the people and to rebuild trust and excitement in the community," McGee said. "I feel like my experiences line up perfectly with what SOCSD has gone through in the recent past. ... This is a great opportunity to lead a good district and help it become a great district."
The passion for education within the community and upcoming SOCSD-MSU partnership school for grades 6-7 provide a pathway for success not available in many other Mississippi communities, he said.
Ahead of his Monday stakeholder meetings and interview with the school board, McGee said he is excited to share his vision for the district and hopes to learn about local concerns and goals moving forward.
"The biggest challenges a candidate and new superintendent face involve getting to know the community so they trust you and making sure you get great feedback on their expectations, how they perceive the district and where they want it to go," he said.
SCSD serves about 4,300 students, McGee said, at 11 schools.
Previously, McGee led the Kosciusko School District for seven years. The district, which then served about 2,300 students, earned an "A" accountability grade under his leadership and was ranked as one of the top-10 districts in the state.
Peasant, 49, has served as a TSD assistant superintendent since 2014. In his role, he oversees grades 7-12 issues, including athletics, field trips, technology, dual enrollment, General Educational Development (GED) and discipline.
Those responsibilities -- and a previous six-year stint as Clinton High School's principal -- have prepared him to lead a school district outright.
"My experiences with that direct responsibility, including working with the other superintendents, have all been an opportunity to learn and grow in the central office. I feel like I have an advantage with my experience and the responsibilities I currently have," he said.
Peasant, who interviewed Thursday with the district, said the former Starkville School District's "tradition of excellence" sparked his interest in the upcoming job vacancy. After reviewing the district and learning about the community, he said he decided to submit his application.
"Like all school districts, SOCSD needs a leader that has a forward-looking vision in terms of preparing students for careers," he said. "We cannot prepare K-5 students for the current job market; we need to prepare them for the job market that doesn't exist by utilizing more technology and science-, technology-, engineering- and math-based (STEM) education."
If hired, Peasant said he wants to make SOCSD his "final destination" in terms of employment.
TSD last received a "B" accountability score from MDE and serves about 7,000 students, Peasant said.
He earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Southern Mississippi and holds a master's degree from Mississippi College.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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