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School superintendents face tough challenges




The departure of Steve Montgomery as West Point Schools superintendent after four years is lamentable, but right on schedule, according to recent education studies.  


District superintendents remain in office for about five years, on average. Many leave sooner. While this is a fact of life, it short-changes districts that need sustained leadership to put educational reforms into place. 


Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, district superintendents -- and teachers -- have faced increased pressure to raise student performance on standardized tests. Some teachers argue that this puts them under pressure to "teach to the test" -- helping students increase their scores, rather than teaching them to think independently and more broadly. This increases teachers'' hours and stress levels, and in the case of superintendents, leads to an average 80-hour work week, according to one study. 


Add to that the pressure placed on superintendents as the public face of the district, responsible for hundreds of kids'' successes or failures. Criticism is high. Job security is low -- the superintendent serves at the will of its board. 


No wonder superintendents move on, or choose a job in the private sector instead of dealing with public education''s challenges and headaches. 


Still, bright, active superintendents leave districts in better shape than when they arrived. With all the changes in the Columbus district, for example, many may be surprised that Del Phillips has only been on the job less than four years. When driving forces like Phillips leave -- he''s made no outward intention to do so, though did express interest in the state superintendent job when it was open last year -- an inevitable sense of crisis sets in.  


Sweeping reforms such as magnet schools, new construction, year-round education, and attractive academic programs like the International Baccalaureate program at Columbus High, are giant strides in the direction of what is needed to turn around Mississippi education, which ranks at or near the bottom in most educational measures.  


Further funding cuts don''t help. The Legislature will pass a new budget next year that will inevitably lead to further cuts in public schools and universities. With no appetite in the Legislature to raise taxes, and despite the effort to set aside federal funds meant for education last year for this budget year, cuts seem inevitable. 


We wish Montgomery well as he moves on to his next challenge, and we wish the best of luck to the West Point school board, which will have the challenge of finding a replacement during trying times. We hope they swing for the fences, and are able to land an innovative, energetic superintendent.



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