DeSoto County's newly-elected school superintendent doesn't see any glaring issues



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HERNANDO, Mississippi — DeSoto County's newly-elected school superintendent doesn't see any glaring issues that need immediate attention when he assumes office in January, but he's hoping the district's teachers will educate him if there are needs of which he isn't aware.

"I don't really see a top priority right now," Cory Uselton said, "but that's the reason I want to meet with everyone. I believe the top priorities will become evident during those meetings."

Uselton, 46, was elected to lead Mississippi's largest public school district in a runoff last Tuesday against Jim Ferguson, the district's chief academic officer for high schools. As winner of the Republican runoff, Uselton won the office since there is no Democratic opponent in the November general election.

He will replace retiring Supt. Milton Kuykendall to become the 10th elected superintendent of DeSoto County Schools. Kuykendall, who did not endorse anyone, praised Uselton after he won, saying he didn't think "a better choice could have been found if they had conducted a nationwide search."

"It's a big district," Uselton said of the sprawling countywide district that includes 42 campuses and more than 33,000 students. "That's why I think it's important to visit every campus, hear their concerns and get to know the unique character of each school."

Uselton said that process of visiting campuses will occupy much of his time during the coming four months, along with working some in the Hernando district office as part of the transition process and continuing, for now, to serve as principal of Southaven's DeSoto Central High School, the fifth largest high school in the state with an enrollment of more than 1,700.

Uselton knew what he was biting off and decided this was the time to do it.

"It was a difficult decision because my children are still young, and I knew it would take time away from my family," he said. "But I decided the time was right if I was ever going to run for superintendent."

Uselton and his wife, Amanda, have two sons, Jackson, 11, and Will, 8, who go to school in Hernando.

He has served as principal at DeSoto Central since 2009, and the school was named one of the top high schools in America by Newsweek in 2013. In 2014, Uselton was named Mississippi's Principal of the Year.

Uselton will participate in selecting his replacement at DeSoto Central by year's end and said it could "create a domino effect" at other schools in the district if the new DeSoto Central principal comes from another DeSoto school.

Uselton touched on several other issues that will await him when he takes office:

GROWTH: Always an issue in the rapidly growing district, Uselton thinks the district will have to look hard at long-term growth as the coming Interstate 69 corridor works through the county.

"It would be very shortsighted to just look at the next five years," he said. "We have to look at next 10 to 20 years. The real estate market will play a big role in that as we consider new facilities, but we've got to stay ahead of the curve as I-69 comes in."

DISCIPLINE: A group called DeSoto County Parents and Students for Justice filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education's civil rights division in April, charging that the district's disciplinary policies disproportionately target African-American students. Education officials have yet to announce whether they will investigate the complaint, and Uselton says only that "any concerns brought to our attention will be looked into."

Group spokesman James Mathis said multiple people came forth with incidents to document the charges.

LEGISLATURE: Uselton will work with a freshmen group of DeSoto County legislators, who upset four incumbents in the Aug. 4 GOP primary largely on the basis of an education agenda. The winners were backed by a Jackson area Political Action Committee backing education reform, including charter schools and vouchers.

Uselton said he's met all four new legislators and talked to two of them in recent days.

"Needless to say, I'll be following public education legislation very closely," Uselton said. "I want it to be a top priority."

VOTING PATTERN: Uselton said he was gratified to see uniform support throughout the county in his runoff victory. Ferguson had strong support in Horn Lake, where he served as a high school principal for 12 years, but Uselton won most of the precincts in other parts of DeSoto County.

"I was glad to see there were parents throughout the county who supported me," Uselton said.


Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com

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