Superintendent Burnham to retire after 43-year career

JACKSON — Mississippi Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham is retiring.

Burnham will complete his second stretch as leader of the state’s 152 school districts on June 30, timing his departure to the end of the budget year.

“I have served passionately for 43 years as an educator striving to make positive changes and to provide better opportunities for children,” Burnham said in a statement.

He first led the state’s K-12 schools from 1992 to 1997. After Hank Bounds left to become commissioner of higher education, Burnham was rehired by the state Board of Education in November 2009, taking over in January 2010. His second tour in the job took place as the state’s schools struggled with tight budgets and worked to meet higher accountability standards.

“I want to thank Tom for his many years of dedicated service to our state as he steps down from his role as state superintendent of education,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement. “More than anything, Tom has been a good friend of mine through my time as lieutenant governor and now as governor.”

“Tom is a great educator,” said retiring Pass Christian superintendent Sue Matheson, who’s leaving the state board. “He’s been great for Mississippi.”

Charles McClelland of Jackson, chairman of the state Board of Education, said that when Burnham approached him several months ago about retiring, he asked the superintendent to stay on until the conclusion of the legislative session, which ended last Thursday.

McClelland said board members would discuss finding Burnham’s successor when they meet in May, and said it was likely that an interim superintendent would be appointed. That would give time for a longer search for a permanent successor.

“We’ll want to take the time to make sure we get the right person,” said board member Kami Bumgarner of Madison.

The state superintendent currently makes $307,000 per year, as set by state law.

Burnham served as dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi between stints as state superintendent. He earlier served as superintendent of Henderson County Public Schools in North Carolina and Biloxi Public Schools.

In his second stint as state superintendent, Burnham expanded efforts to turn around troubled school districts. The state now controls eight of the 152 local districts: Aberdeen, Drew, Hazlehurst, Indianola, North Panola, Okolona, Sunflower County and Tate County.

“He has toughened our accreditation standards,” said Mississippi Economic Council President Blake Wilson. “He has absolutely refused to look the other way on failing school districts.”

Wilson is a member of the state’s accreditation commission and the council has pushed better schools as part of its economic plan for the state.

The outgoing superintendent has said that districts tend to backslide after leaving state control, and new sanctions are coming that are meant to pressure local communities to improve schools without so much state help.

Burnham has also struggled with budget issues. The state Department of Education has shed employees, limiting its ability to help districts. At the same time, state aid sent to local districts has remained below the full amount prescribed by the state funding formula, known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Even with an increase for the 2013 budget year, the total will fall more than $250 million short of full funding.

Still, admirers say Burnham leaves with other achievements, including work to cut dropout rates, a teacher code of ethics, and tougher qualifications for new teachers.

A new superintendent will be faced with continuing Burnham’s work, plus some new challenges. Mississippi is implementing new curriculum standards known as common core, meant to bring together nationwide what states teach.

“Moving to common core is really a significant step and there’s a lot of training that will go with that,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents Campaign, a public school lobbying group. “It’s really a ramped-up curriculum and a different curriculum.”

McClelland said the next superintendent would probably also have to find a way to fit charter schools into the state system, given the desire of Gov Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and many legislators for such alternative public schools.

“It’s going to need to be someone who is very strong,” Loome said. “It’s a grueling, grueling job.”

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