Barbour agrees to emergency in Okolona

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Former Tupelo Superintendent Mike Vinson should be in Okolona next week to begin the process of taking over the troubled school district.
The state Board of Education voted Friday to ask Gov. Haley Barbour to declare an emergency in the troubled school district, giving the state the authority to take over the district. Barbour said he would sign the declaration after receiving the paperwork.
The board also selected Vinson, upon the recommendation of Superintendent Tom Burnham, to serve as conservator of the district.
Both actions were expected Friday.
“Okolona has had four superintendents in two years. There has not been a level of consistency, and the academic needs of the children have not been met,” Burnham said.
The plan Burnham outlined to the Board of Education is for the conservatorship to officially begin on March 1. Burnham and Vinson will meet at 4:30 p.m. that day with Okolona teachers and other employees and meet with concerned parents and other members of the community later that night.

Plan of action
On April 15, Vinson is scheduled to provide to the state Board of Education an action plan that “will establish how the conservator will move forward to meet the criteria necessary to exit the conservatorship.”
But Burnham has said once the state takes over a district, the conservatorship normally lasts multiple years.
“We’re acting very deliberately,” Burnham said. “We’re moving in a timely manner, but not without giving good thought to each step and not without making sure each step is well planned.”
The board voted unanimously to ask the governor to declare the state of emergency because the district “faces many issues that jeopardize the safety, security and educational interests” of the 650 students in the system.
The district is failing academically and will run out of money before the end of the fiscal year.
Burnham said Vinson has the qualifications needed to be a good conservator.
“He at one time was an elected superintendent,” Burnham said. “He knows how to get out in the community. He knows how to energize the community. …
“Having served in Tupelo he was geographically very close to the Okolona School District. He has an understanding of the area. He is well recognized in the area.”
Plus, his school districts have always excelled academically, and he has been a good money manager, Burnham said.
Vinson was the elected superintendent of the Rankin District before coming to Tupelo in the 1990s to the appointed post. He left Tupelo 2002 and served as executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Administrators.
As part of the conservator process, the Okolona School Board will be dissolved and the superintendent terminated. But Burnham has said he expects Superintendent Gregory Stephens, who has been with the district only since January, to remain with the system in some capacity.
State board member Wayne Gann said, “I think it will be Dr. Vinson’s philosophy that we’re here to help … unless people don’t do their jobs. … I am sure there are good people in the district who want to do a good job.” He said Vinson’s job will be to provide support.