desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

LIVINGSTON — The five candidates vying to become the Livingston Parish school system's new superintendent talked about their leadership styles and goals for the 26,000-student school system during hour-long interviews Monday. 

The candidates floated proposals to increase career and technical education programs, regulate cell phone use in schools and improve the district’s accountability score, which dropped from an A to a B under a new system implemented this year.

The candidates also addressed their various levels of experience during interviews conducted by the Livingston Parish School Board, which was meeting as a committee of the whole.

Board Chairman Buddy Mincey Jr. highlighted that five of the past six superintendents have served both as human resources director and assistant superintendent, a pair of qualifications held by none of the three internal candidates.

The School Board sat in executive session following the interviews but took no action. They will meet again Thursday night to vote to on a candidate, who is expected to begin work April 29.

Retiring Superintendent Rick Wentzel will remain as a consultant to the board through May 31 and will retire officially on June 15.

The candidates who were interviewed included Jody Purvis, the school system's high school curriculum supervisor. He talked about his deep roots in Livingston Parish.

He also explained how he'd overcome his relative lack of experience compared to the other internal candidates. He said it takes three years — the length of time the past two superintendents have served — to get comfortable enough to institute long-term change.

"If we think about students and what is right for students, we don't look at whose turn it is, unless it is a board game or a water fountain line," Purvis said.

He offered several specific ideas he'd like to implement if he gets the job. For example, he said, he wants to expand career and technical education to junior high schools and to kids and parents learning English as a second language.

Purvis said the school system needs to move away from its no cell phone policy, which students routinely violate, and instead allow phones with restrictions.

Joe Murphy, who currently serves as assistant superintendent, cited his experience leading efforts to rebuild the school system after nearly $100 million in the August 2016 flood qualifies him to take the reins.

He said that during the rebuilding process he has formed strong networks inside and outside the parish, including in Baton Rouge where he can advocate in the future for the school district and funding.

"The role of the superintendent is to be the voice at the state Capitol. We need a superintendent who is vocal, respectful and when he speaks, his voice resonates with those at the Capitol," he said.

One area he mentioned changing was with respect to virtual academies, where many Livingston Parish students are now receiving their education. He said the school system lost $730,000 in state funding for those students last yea and the district needs to adapt to bring them back.

"We need to look at virtual learning, distance learning. We need to diversify our course offerings, such as career and technical education, Advanced Placement an early college," Murphy said.

One of the candidates from outside the school system, C. Michael Robinson Jr., is a former school superintendent of a small district in Arkansas and was the instructional director at a large district in Maryland. He's now a senior associate at BRP Associates in Jonesboro, Georgia, where he focuses on training and coaching for principals.

"I've been in large districts, average sized districts, and very small districts, and from each of those experiences, I have picked up things a long the way I believe would help me in Livingston," he said.

He said that, if selected, he would begin by meeting with community members and performing audits of the system to identify areas that need improvement.

"The first thing I don't want to do is come in and begin to start changing what is working," he said.

The school system's human resources director, Bruce Chaffin, emphasized in his interview that he would draw ideas from those around him — both teachers in the system and people he meets from other districts and states.

He said morale is the biggest issue facing education in Louisiana right now, and increasing pay and opportunities for recognition would go a long way in helping that and more.

"If teacher morale goes up, the byproduct of that is our school performance scores," he said. "The sky is the limit."

Chaffin added that he had worked in schools throughout the district and daily with Wentzel on personnel decisions over the past three years. He noted that under his tenure, the school system rolled out automated HR programs and a new insurance policy, both complicated endeavors. 

Another candidate from outside the system, Elizabeth Duran Swinford, is a former superintendent of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, County School System and the Vicksburg Warren School District in Mississippi.

She also formerly lived in Louisiana and was the the East Baton Rouge Parish school system's associate superintendent for human resources from 2003 to 2010. Currently a consultant living in New York City, Swinford applied for the job of Livingston Parish school superintnendent three years ago and was not selected.

Swinford, who speaks Spanish, said the fact that she's bilingual could help the school system connect with the parish's growing Hispanic community.

"I can engage a segment of this community that is growing that will impact us more strongly," she said.

Swinford said she is eager to move back to Louisiana and has grandchildren in the Livingston Parish school system. She stressed how she would engage fully with the community and develop partnerships with local businesses to increase funding for career and technical programs.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.