Burnham chosen to return as Miss. schools chief

Published 2:18 pm Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tom Burnham, who led Mississippi’s public school system for five years in the mid-1990s, has been chosen to return to the position.

The state Board of Education announced its decision Tuesday after interviewing four candidates. Burnham, 63, will succeed Hank Bounds, who resigned in June to accept the job as Mississippi’s higher education commissioner.

John Jordan had been acting superintendent. Burnham is currently dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi. He will assume his new duties by the end of the year, said Pete Smith, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Education.

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Burnham said his love for education drove him to seek the job again.

“We have some legislation in place right now to do things for schools. We have a really good strategic plan in place. We can make a difference in education,” Burnham said.

Burnham said federal stimulus money being steered to underperforming schools could help lift Mississippi’s education system.

Bill Jones, chairman of the Board of Education, said Burnham’s connection to Mississippi gave him an edge over other candidates.

“It’s fair to say that Mississippi struggles to improve its education system. And some may question, ‘Why Dr. Burnham now?’ But the bottom line is he’s always been successful wherever he’s been,” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of exciting new items on the table, and he’s pretty well acquainted with them.”

Burnham will take over leadership of the state’s 152 school districts in the face of budget cuts and more stringent accountability policies.

Mississippi’s revenue is $111 million below estimates so far this fiscal year. Gov. Haley Barbour has already reduced spending for K-12 public education and other agencies by 5 percent, and has warned of deeper cuts.

Under the new Children First Act, school district superintendents and entire school boards could lose their jobs if their districts are low-performing for two consecutive years. It also creates a recovery school district for troubled schools.

“He’s (Burnham) going to have a lot of decisions to make, both in terms of personnel and policy,” said Claiborne Barksdale, director of the Barksdale Reading Institute in Oxford, which promotes early childhood reading skills and provides books and teacher training to poor districts.

“He is pragmatic. He will make tough decisions,” said Barksdale, who said he’s worked with Burnham in the past. “He’s a good listener and confident about his decision-making.”

In his role at Ole Miss, Burnham was responsible for working with the faculty in the preparation of teachers, administrators and counselors going into schools.

He’s a former superintendent for Henderson County Public Schools in North Carolina and Biloxi Public Schools. He served as Mississippi’s education superintendent from 1992-1997, before leaving to become executive director of the Gulf Coast Initiative Consortium.

At the time, he was earning $104,000 annually as superintendent. The position’s salary is now $307,000, Smith said.

For years, Mississippi has ranked at the bottom nationally on education achievement tests. Bounds had been working to make the state’s curriculum more rigorous. Recent state curriculum tests have shown only slight improvements in student scores.

“We expect him to come in and not miss a beat in implementing the programs to help the board reach its goals,” Jones said.