By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The state Department of Education was appropriated $500,000 during the just-completed legislative session in hopes that it can identify problems in school districts, work to correct them and avoid having to take drastic action like it did earlier this year with the Aberdeen School District.
The state Department of Education audited the Aberdeen School District earlier this year after hearing numerous complaints about problems in the school system.
The audit revealed problems viewed as so severe in the eyes of the state Board of Education that it took over the district in April, removed the local Board of Education and appointed a conservator to oversee operations of the system.
State education officials said it was too late to correct the problems in the district without a complete takeover.
But Senate Education Committee Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the goal is to use the $500,000 to do random audits to find potential problems and help the districts take corrective action before the problems become as severe as what officials said were found in Aberdeen.
Eight of the state’s 152 districts are currently in conservatorship.
Aberdeen is the second district in Northeast Mississippi placed in conservatorship. Okolona was taken over in 2010.
“Let’s not wait until they are so desperate that we must take over the district,” Tollison said. “Let’s try to get in there and try to contain the situation so that we do not have to appoint a conservator.”
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who previously served as House Education Committee chair, said he supports providing the $500,000 for the audits. He said the problem is that the agency’s budget has been cut 20 percent during the past four years while “we have placed more responsibility on them during that time period.”
He said the Legislature has approved various programs that added to the workload of the department, such as enacting a Healthy School Program, overseeing the development of abstinence and sex education programs, developing anti-bullying programs, running eight school districts and many other programs.
“It’s not that they didn’t want to do it,” he said. “They couldn’t.”
Pete Smith, a spokesman for the agency, said, “The goal is to audit at least 20 districts depending on funds, maybe more, to ensure districts are in compliance with the accreditation standards.”
The state Board of Education mandates 37 accreditation standards for the local school districts to meet. Those standards include such items as ensuring properly licensed personnel, providing student safety, publishing school board activities and meeting certain academic standards.
In Aberdeen, state officials cited a litany of problems, ranging from safety issues to poor academic performance to the Aberdeen School Board overstepping its duties and trying to run the daily operations of the district.
The Aberdeen District did not meet 31 of those 37 standards.
Tollison said experts have told him normally a district that meets all or even most accreditation standards “is doing well.”
“If a district is in compliance with half or less, it generally is a candidate for being taken over by the state,” Tollison said. He said after the department conducts a few random audits it might grab the attention of districts and might make them “a little more diligent in making sure things are in order.”
Tollison said MDE plans to contract with retired administrators who understand compliance issues to conduct the audits.