Aberdeen school board president leads forum on possible takeover

By Ray Van Dusen/Monroe Journal

ABERDEEN — Approximately 100 people were in attendance Thursday night for a forum on the looming Aberdeen School District takeover by the Mississippi Department of Education.

School board president Royce Stephens led the meeting on the eve of a possible vote Friday morning of the MDE to pursue the takeover, a rumor that has been swirling around town since January when a state audit was conducted.

Stephens, along with interim superintendent Bobby Eiland, were in Jackson Wednesday where the Commission of the Office Accreditation voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency for the ASD.

“After about 10 minutes of discussion, there was one man saying ‘let’s take over the school.’ I was told it was my job as a school board member to deal with policy and the rest of the time just sit there like a dummy,” Stephens said.

Claims from the audit indicated school board members interfering with the day-to-day operations of the district.

The school district has been called out for violating 31 or 37 standards mandated by the state including the lack of a licensed librarian in certain schools, lack of student support services and a number of teachers not licensed to teach certain subjects.

“They’ve picked out little things from the board minutes that don’t tell the whole story. The problem doesn’t rest on the board; it rests in the superintendent, principals and federal program directors not doing their jobs,” Stephens said.

Abuse of travel expenditures is another violation the MDE brought to light.

“We made a motion for $15,000 for board travel, but all the members aren’t using it. How are you going to learn if you don’t travel?,” Stephens asked.

According to Stephens, the ASD will have to repay the state nearly $230,000 in funding not spent properly in addition to two teachers’ salaries who weren’t coded correctly.

“On top of that, we’re going to have to pay a conservator between $200,000 and $300,000 a year to run this place who may not even do a good job. In other places they’ve been put in, they’re not doing a good job,” Stephens said.

In the event of a state takeover, the Aberdeen School Board members would be stripped of their duties.

“If they tell me I’m not going to be a board member, I’m still going to be a citizen. We need to come together to let them know we don’t want them here,” Stephens said.

Aberdeen/Monroe County NAACP president Rev. Robert Holliday added to Stephens sentiments.

“I think from here we know what’s going to take place. At this point, we need to start preparing ourselves to challenge this. We’re aware of NAACP policies and our state chapter is waiting to hear from us. I don’t think the citizens of Aberdeen need to act as individuals handling this; this should be handled as a community,” Holliday said.

Both Stephens and Holliday hinted building up public interest for picketing the state capitol if the school takeover does happen.

Ward 1 alderman Alonzo Sykes mentioned a telephone conference in March with Dr. Larry Drawdy, interim deputy superintendent of the Office of School Improvement, in which the board of aldermen was advised to not reinstate Stephens onto the school board.

Stephens is one of three school board members appointed by the Aberdeen Board of Aldermen.

“In the meeting, the brief thing said was that we needed to put someone on the school board to swing votes the other way because the minutes reflect that all votes are 3-2. They made a personal attack on Stephens so I don’t need to explain who the right person was. They basically said we need to put a white person on the board,” said Cloyd Garth, who lost his seat as Ward 2 alderman to Wilchie Clay in Tuesday’s city election.

“If I had the chance to do it all over again and they would’ve told me things weren’t run right six months ago, I would’ve stepped over the line to go to those schools. That’s why I had to overstep my boundaries to conduct this forum. What made me want to do talk to the citizens is because this will affect our children and morale will be down. One state official said it won’t affect the children or the parents and it won’t affect the town because they don’t care about each other,” Stephens said.

Cutline: Aberdeen Learning Center director Willie Mae Johnson contests her low dropout rate figures compared to the 64 percent dropout rate the Mississippi Department of Education claims of the district as per its audit of the district. Johnson’s figures detail a 15.7 percent dropout rate for the 2009-2010 school year and a 7.9 percent rate for the 2010-2011 school year.