Aberdeen School District faces possible takeover

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Aberdeen School District did not meet 31 of the 37 accreditation standards mandated by Mississippi law and now faces the specter of a state takeover.
The Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation on Wednesday voted to recommend a state of emergency in the Monroe County district after an audit by the state Department of Education alleged:
• Incidents that jeopardized the safety of the students.
• Instances where the local school board disregarded state and federal laws.
• A continuation of poor student performance.
The resolution adopted Wednesday by the commission stated “there is sufficient cause to believe that an extreme emergency exists … brought on by serious findings … which jeopardize the safety, security and educational interests” of about 1,100 students in the district.
The state Board of Education will act on the recommendation of the Accreditation Commission on Friday. If the state board agrees and Gov. Phil Bryant issues the state of emergency, the state will place a conservator in the district to oversee day-to-day operations.
The conservator – hired by the state’s education board – would have complete control of personnel in the district and could dissolve the local school board.
Paula Vanderford, executive secretary of the Commission of School Accreditation, said the audit of the school district began in January, but problems in the system have been ongoing.
“I don’t think these happened all at once,” she said.
Aberdeen School Board President Royce Stephens and Interim Superintendent Bobby Eiland testified Wednesday before the commission.
Eiland, who was appointed in January after the school board by a 3-2 vote fired Superintendent Chester Leigh, admitted problems but said teachers and staff are working to correct those problems.
“We still have a long way to go. We are trying to make a little headway,” he said.
Stephens, speaking before the commission and afterward, painted a picture of a district embroiled in local politics. He said the school board, him specifically, was an issue in the recently completed mayoral election.
Incoming Mayor Cecil Belle, elected Tuesday, said he and the two newly elected aldermen hope to work with the state to improve the district, “but if the state decides to take it over, there won’t be much we can do.”
Stephens blamed many of the problems in the district on Leigh, who is appealing his firing.
Stephens denied that he overstepped his policy-making functions and tried to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the district.
While the district is struggling academically and has a 64.3 percent dropout rate, Vanderford conceded there are districts in the state that are not being taken over with poorer performance records.
“We have made improvements,” Stephens said, adding he thought Aberdeen was far from the worst district in the state.
According to the latest state accreditation standard, Aberdeen is listed as “at risk of failing.” If the state of emergency is finally declared, the district’s accreditation level could be redrawn. Under rules being considered by the state Board of Education, that could result in the district’s extracurricular activities, such as sports and band, being suspended. But it is not certain the state board will adopt that change.
“It is unpleasant, of course, to have the state take over the district,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, whose Senate district includes the Aberdeen schools. “At the same time, it is an opportunity to revive the public schools in Aberdeen.
“There are good, hard-working, dedicated teachers and administrators. There are students who want to learn. There are parents who care about their children learning.”
According to the audit by the state Department of Education, there were two allegations of sexual misconduct by school district personnel not reported to law enforcement. The local school board interfered in the day-to-day operations and appeared to support “a system of favoritism and retaliation that influences board decisions” in terms of school district personnel.
Some local school board members have Internet at their homes paid for with district funds, Vanderford alleged.
The board was accused of a litany of other infractions, including violating open meetings laws. The report alleged the district did not adhere to federal guidelines in terms of educating special needs children and has had financial issues, including barely being able to meet its payroll in December. The district also has used state funds for purposes other than what they were designated, resulting in the need for the district to reimburse funds to the state, according to the audit.
Other findings of the state Department of Education investigation were that crisis plans were not developed and the district’s discipline policy was not uniformly enforced.
Seven school districts in the state, including Okolona, are in conservatorship.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com