In his estimation, Madison resident Todd Ivey, chief operations officer at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), has spent more state money than anybody in Mississippi.
How much? “Over the years, it has been billions and billions of dollars,” he said.
Ivey’s influence stretches for decades. He’s worked for seven state superintendents of education. Three of them served two stints as state superintendent – Drs. Richard Thompson and Tom Burnham. The other state education chiefs were Drs. Richard Boyd, Henry Johnson, Hank Bounds, Lynn House and Carey Wright.
“Todd was the first person to call me after I accepted the position of state superintendent, and from that day forward, I’ve known him to be dedicated, trustworthy and knowledgeable. Todd can remember code sections of Mississippi law and if he didn’t know the answer, he’d go to his office, get the law book and return with the answer quickly,” Wright said. “I wish him well on his well-earned retirement and success in any future endeavors.”
The state’s legislative leaders have Ivey’s cell phone number, and they use it, often. Former governors, attorneys, school district superintendents and reporters have all culled Ivey’s in-depth knowledge about the singularly most talked about Mississippi education law in decades – the Mississippi Adequate Education Program or MAEP.
When it comes to the law that established the funding of Mississippi’s public education system, Ivey is considered the expert at the MDE. But after 30 years of service to the MDE and a total of 32 years of service to the State of Mississippi, Ivey announced his retirement in September.
In a time when workers change jobs multiple times in their career, the MDE was Ivey’s third and final place of employment. So what kept Ivey at MDE for three decades?
“You get comfortable, and I enjoyed what I was doing. I looked forward to coming to work because of the people,” he said.
Ivey’s state service began in 1984 in the Mississippi State Personnel Office when he was “young, fresh out of college, and didn’t know what (he) was doing.” He also worked for about two years in Information Technology Services before joining MDE in 1987 as a school finance officer.
“What scared me was the amount of money I was dealing with at the time. The state was spending about $750 million then. We are now up to $2 billion. It was intimidating,” he said.
In the late 1980s, desktop computers were just starting to permeate the workforce. When Ivey began his career at MDE, most people had word processors. His boss at the time, who was still partial to adding machines, begrudgingly agreed for Ivey to get a desktop computer to create spreadsheets.
“The first time I gave him a spreadsheet he took out his adding machine and went through and started adding it up,” Ivey said.
Ivey upgraded his 10 MB hard drive, processor and memory over time, which made the computer run hot and shut down on occasion. He developed a solution to that problem – a well-placed fan under his desk to keep it cool.
Ivey’s expertise about the state’s K-12 funding law developed by chance. When the state Legislature hired consultants to create the funding formula, Ivey and then MDE budget director Ralph McDonald worked with them as they built the system.
“Once the law passed in 1997, Ralph and I had the knowledge of how it worked. Ralph left the agency and then that left me being the only one here that had the knowledge,” Ivey said. He has since passed that knowledge to Donna Nester, manager of MDE’s school financial services.
Ivey’s experience hasn’t been solely in state government. He had a decorated military career as well, having served 33 years in the Mississippi National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. He earned The Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with 3 Oak Leaves, an Iraq Campaign Medal, and a Global War on Terror Medal.
Early in his military career, Ivey tempted fate. “I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane while it was in the air . . . once. I was young and stupid and somebody dared me,” he said before adding, “Yes, I had a parachute.”
After Ivey completed a deployment in Iraq for 15 months between 2006 and 2007 he returned to the agency. Over the years, he has seen public education improve, even though he adds the disclaimer that he’s not an educator.
“Within the last 10 years, we’ve moved beyond the basic reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more about science and technology and less rote memorization,” he said.
Ivey, the father of two adult children, said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Monica, and his 80-pound boxer, Broo. He also will have more time to work in his yard, which he enjoys, and cheer on his beloved Mississippi State University Bulldogs and Atlanta Braves.
As he makes the transition to retiree, Ivey’s advice to new employees is simple. “Be willing to learn. Find something that you love doing, then do it,” he said.
As far as his impact on the MDE, Ivey wants to be regarded as a steady presence in the midst of change in public education.
“I would hope that I was someone who was a stabilizing factor, someone the agency could count on,” Ivey said before an interruption.
His cell phone rings. It’s a request from a legislator asking for MAEP information.