By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
OKOLONA – As Mississippi’s superintendent of education toured Okolona High School on Monday, he received a specific request from a district employee.
Zawartha Triplett, the district’s special education director, told State Superintendent Tom Burnham that she wanted to hear good news. Burnham smiled and told her everything would be fine.
“We’re going to do the right thing for the boys and girls here, we’re going to work hard and then we’re going to get out of your way,” Burnham said.
That was essentially the message that Burnham would later deliver to an assembly of Okolona’s faculty and staff.
Monday was the first official day that the Mississippi Department of Education took control of the Okolona Municipal Separate School District in order to improve the district’s finances, its academic struggles and its accreditation failures.
Burnham took a walking tour of the district’s three schools, along with Mike Vinson, who will run the district as its conservator, and interim Deputy State Superintendent Larry Drawdy, who will oversee all five districts currently being run by the state.
“The buildings are in better condition than I expected,” Burnham said. “I was also impressed that the students seemed happy for the most part and were on task in the classroom. I’m very impressed with the teachers I talked to. Their hearts seemed to be in the right place.”
The three men visited the elementary school, the high school and the vocational center. They shook hands, gave high-fives to students and asked kids what they were learning. They also took time to compliment the schools’ custodial staffs about the cleanliness of all three buildings.
“I have been in education some 40-odd years, and I have not seen any cleaner schools than I saw today,” Drawdy said.
Vinson began signing papers and reviewing the district’s financial documents.
“Education is diagnostic and prescriptive,” Vinson said. “You diagnose to see what your needs are and then you fix them.”
He’ll spend most of his early time in the district analyzing its finances to see exactly where things currently stand.
Vinson, who first toured the district last week, officially moved into his new office on Monday, the day that the district’s school board was relieved of its duties. Superintendent Gregory Stephens was also removed from his position, but Vinson said Stephens would continue to serve the district in a role yet to be announced.
“I will be available to Dr. Vinson in whatever capacity he feels like will be of best service to the school district,” Stephens said.
After the tours concluded, the three educators addressed a packed room of teachers and staff in the cafeteria of Okolona High School. Burnham explained the conservator process and answered questions from the teachers.
“As a district, we wanted to walk away knowing the state Department of Education will be faithful in the process of trying to assist us with getting the district back on track,” Triplett said. “I know that they will help, but you’re going to have to be open to their help.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.