District’s fresh face has opportunity

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The time it took new Superintendent Frederick Hill to explain his goals for the district and field 20 questions from the town hall meeting’s audience was just enough time for the McLaurin Elementary student in the second row to finish her homework for the night.

And her worksheet even included the yuckiest of all questions — math word problems.

Both Hill and the student had a tough task, though I’d have much rather be in Hill’s shoes than be left with word problems.

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With just shy of six months on the job, Hill is still enjoying the honeymoon.

He has the luxury of being able to openly and confidently admit in front of a crowd that there are big problems in the district without having 150 glaring eyes remind him that he’s responsible for creating those problems.

Today’s problems were inherited, tomorrow’s will be all his.

Still, honeymoon or not, Hill’s command of the room and the questions conveyed an entirely different atmosphere than at similar meetings under prior leadership.

He opened the night by saying he’s willing and ready to talk to anyone about the district and he closed the night saying the exact same thing.

He stressed a willingness to hear and act upon community ideas.

He asked — no really, insisted — on help from the public if the district is to improve.

He never seemed afraid of a question, though he did often answer with an, “I don’t know. But I’ll find out.”

The questions were submitted in writing, anonymously, but twice Hill asked the author to speak up to clarify their concern. Both question-askers obliged without embarrassment or attack.

The same meeting five years ago dissolved before it started. A nervous administration seemed ready to hide, not talk openly, and the tense crowd seized the moment.

Questions were pointed, mean, derogatory and inflammatory. Replies were sometimes half answers, not that full answers would have been good enough at that point anyway.

This Tuesday, only one question had to be slightly censored by the moderator, presumably because it asked an inappropriate race-based question about the nearly all-black school district. The audience accepted the censorship with a chuckle.

Hill said during the meeting that one of his top goals is to improve communication with the public. That’s a desperately needed thing, and Hill deserves praise for recognizing it quickly.

As he mentioned more than once, good things do happen in our public schools. Still, the community insists on talking more about the problems.

An aggressive public relations effort could change that, which could in turn impact everything from morale and achievement to the district’s taxpayer-funded budget.

Tuesday night was a wonderful start toward improving that school-community relationship to which Hill referred.

He carried himself well, was believable and trustworthy.

If he works as hard as he said he will and finds a bit of luck, he’ll enjoy an extended honeymoon followed by marked improvements that bring community confidence.

Otherwise the next town hall is likely to be full of those icky word problems once again.


Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.