A view of the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The Senate rejected the nomination of Robert Taylor for state superintendent of education on Wednesday.

Taylor was most recently a deputy state superintendent for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction before starting his role here on Jan. 17. A native of Laurel, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and has worked in North Carolina schools since 1992. 

Robert Taylor, a native of Laurel. Credit: Mississippi Department of Education

The state superintendent oversees Mississippi’s 870 public schools and is appointed by the State Board of Education. Once the board makes a selection, that person must be confirmed by a nominations subcommittee and the Senate Education Committee before being approved by the full chamber with a vote. Taylor’s nomination passed through the first two steps before failing the Senate vote 21-31. 

Senators expressed concerns during the Senate Education Committee vote on Tuesday that Taylor had worked outside of Mississippi for most of his career, citing that this was the same reason they had just rejected Gov. Tate Reeves’ nomination for the State Board of Education. Taylor’s predecessor Carey Wright is not a Mississippi native and took the position after working in District of Columbia Public Schools.

“This is nothing personal with me, but it’s absolutely what this Capitol needs (sic) to stay consistent with your votes, and I will be staying consistent with mine,” said Sen. Michael McLendon, R-Hernando. 

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory responded to these concerns both in committee and on the Senate floor, arguing the state doesn’t take this stance with many other positions as not to limit the options. 

“I don’t understand the notion that we only want people from Mississippi, I thought we wanted people from other states to come here,” Bryan said. 

Sen. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, chaired the education nominations subcommittee and was one of five Senate Republicans who voted in favor of Taylor. 

“We talk about brain drain – well here was a chance to bring someone back,” Johnson said. “In conversations I had with him, I thought he answered things well. He praised what Mississippi has done with education in the last 10 years and said he wants to continue that trend. I thought he had a great knowledge of education and what’s going on here.”

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, expressed frustration with lack of transparency in the hiring process, saying on Tuesday he was “disgusted” with the way it was handled. This concern was also discussed at the March 15 hearing to interview Taylor and State Board of Education Chair Rosemary Aultman, where Aultman answered questions about the hiring process from senators.

The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) reviewed the hiring process at the request of legislators, finding the board lacked a standard scoring method for evaluating candidates and the selection process “lacked transparency,” as finalists for the position were not shared publicly despite the consulting firm proposing to do so. 

Aultman responded to these concerns, saying applicants for the position asked to remain anonymous, and the board chose to honor the request. Aultman also explained the board developed a list of attributes an ideal candidate would have and judged applications based on how well they matched the list. For finalists, while they were not scored by a rubric, Aultman said each board member did rank the four options. 

Aultman reiterated this support for Taylor and the hiring process after Taylor was rejected by the Senate in a statement from the Mississippi Department of Education. 

“The State Board of Education conducted a fair, competitive and rigorous application process to select the most qualified candidate to fulfill the duties of state superintendent of education,” she said. “The search firm we hired was helpful in giving the board direction, and we are confident we selected the best candidate.”

Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, also raised concerns on the Senate floor that the school district Taylor led in North Carolina did not significantly improve under his nearly 10-year tenure. Between 2015 and 2019, the years for which data is publicly available from the North Carolina School Report Cards website, the Bladen County School District did see more schools meeting their growth targets, as well as the number of C-rated schools rising from four to seven. D-rated schools had fallen from eight to three between 2015 and 2018, before jumping back up to six in 2019. This data does not represent all of the years that Taylor led the district. 

Taylor has previously said at State Board of Education meetings that assisting low-performing districts was one of his top priorities, and had visited all but one of them in his first two months on the job to learn about their needs. 

“It is our duty and responsibility to be able to get in and work with those districts before they end up on the list being over by the state,” Taylor said at the March 15 committee hearing. “We don’t have the capacity to take over ten or eleven districts, but we do have the ability to be able to get into those districts and help them build capacity.” 

Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he voted against Taylor for multiple reasons, but most specifically because he “wanted to see someone with a better resume on low-performing schools.”

Taylor would have also been the second Black state superintendent after Henry L. Johnson, who also came to Mississippi from North Carolina in 2002. Some have raised concerns that race placed a role in this rejection. 

“Any time you put politics and partisanship and race ahead of serving the state of Mississippi, we do our citizens a great disservice,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. 

The State Board of Education said in a press release that they will schedule a special-called board meeting in the coming days to name an interim and begin a new search process. 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.