Woman picked as VWSD superintendent Baton Rouge resident tapped in 3-2 decision

Published 12:05 pm Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The new superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren School District said she was “very excited and honored” to be named by the Board of Trustees Tuesday evening to be the district’s first woman leader.

“I’m just trying to get over the moment,” said Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford in a phone interview from her Baton Rouge home about an hour after the board’s vote. “I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight. It really is an honor and a privilege to be selected, and humbling, too. I know they had four excellent candidates.”

Trustees chose Swinford by a 3 to 2 vote, with District 1 representative Jerry Boland, Tommy Shelton from District 5 and Joe Loviza from District 4 in favor. Board president and District 2 member Zelmarine Murphy and District 3 trustee Jim Stirgus Jr. voted for Jerry Payne, of Pine Grove, La.

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“We had a lot of quality candidates,” Shelton said following the vote, which took place after the board met in closed session for about an hour, a follow-up to a four-hour session Friday night when they could not reach a consensus. “That speaks to the reason it took so long to deliberate and reach a decision. I feel like Dr. Swinford would be the best person for the job at this time.”

Board members got feedback from groups with whom each candidate met last week, including teachers, administrators and business leaders, Shelton said. “Many of them said they really liked her,” he said.

Murphy and Stirgus both said they favored Payne because of his classroom experience, believing he was the best candidate to improve student test scores in the district, which was rated “at risk of failure” after last year’s exams.

Swinford’s salary has not been set, Murphy said, but will be negotiated by board attorney, state Sen. Briggs Hopson, who is expected to talk with Swinford today.

The board set a range of $110,000 to $140,000 when they began the search process to replace Dr. James Price, who retired June 30. Swinford will oversee an annual budget of about $80 million and a district that includes 15 schools and about 9,000 students and 1,300 employees.

Swinford, currently the associate superintendent for human resources for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, said she does not yet have a firm date to be on the job. “I will give notice to my current district and make sure things I need to do here are in order,” she said. “I can’t say two weeks for sure. It may be a little more.”

She did not rule out the possibility of coming to Vicksburg to be present for the first day or two of school, which begins Aug. 5, then returning to finish her duties in East Baton Rouge.

Once officially on the job, learning about the district will be her top priority during the first 90 days, Swinford said.

“I plan to spend a lot of time in the schools, learning about them, about the school environment, what the needs are, what the perceptions of the community are,” she said. “I will be conducting some community forums and finding out as much as I can before making any decisions that will impact the district.”

Results of state-mandated tests taken in the spring — the MCT2 for elementary students and Subject Area Tests for secondary — are expected to be released by the state Department of Education within the next month, one of Swinford’s first measures of where the district, the schools and the students stand academically.

“I’ll study what they say as well as what they don’t say,” she said of the scores.

Swinford looks forward to working with trustees, saying VWSD has a “wonderful, progressive, collegial” board. “I don’t expect every decision to be unanimous, but I could tell in my time there that each and every one of them has a true heart for education and a lot of knowledge, and they clearly want the best for the district.”

She also said she loves Vicksburg, its mix of city and rural qualities and its diversity. “It’s a well-balanced school district with a lot of challenge.”

Swinford, 48, was raised in Puerto Rico, and is bilingual in Spanish and English. The daughter of a Navy chaplain, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1986 and moved from the island to Florida in 1988 to improve her children’s educational opportunities, she said.

From 1988 to 2001, she was a teacher, dean of students, assistant principal and principal at schools in Florida and California, earning a master’s degree in educational leadership along the way.

She was director for certified personnel in Caddo Parish Schools from 2001 to 2003 before signing on with East Baton Rouge Parish. She earned a doctor of education degree in organizational leadership in 2007 with a 4.0 grade-point average.

She has been a speaker at national education conferences and has published material in the Best Practices Journal for the American Association for School Personnel Administrators, an organization for which she has co-chaired the Professional Development Committee.

She and her husband, Darren, have four grown children and two grandchildren, ages 8 and 9, with another grandchild due in November.

Swinford, Payne and two other candidates were recommended by professional search firm McPherson and Jacobson, hired by the board in April. The district paid $16,500 for the firm’s services.

Both Swinford and Payne had been candidates for superintendent of Pointe Coupee Parish, La., a year ago, and Swinford was also a candidate for superintendent in Yakima, Wash., and in East Baton Rouge Parish in 2009.

In addition to being the first woman head of the district, she is the second hired from out of state.

The district was formed in 1987 from consolidating Vicksburg and Warren County school districts. Ed Gilley of Tennessee served as the first superintendent, followed by Charles Craft, Robert Pickett, Donald Oakes and Price, all promoted from within the district.

Oakes was brought back by trustees July 1 to serve as interim superintendent until the position was filled. He said his role during the transition “will depend on Dr. Swinford and the board. I’ll do whatever they want me to do,” he said. “I’ll be glad to help her in any way I can.”