Mississippi Board of Education could return Okolona district to local control

By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal

OKOLONA — A vote to return Okolona schools to local control will be taken Friday and all indications are the district will come out of conservatorship.

The Okolona Municipal School District was placed under state control 23-months ago due to academic and financial failures. On Friday the Mississippi Board of Education trustees will assess how Okolona has addressed those issue.

“The state has 37 criteria or standards that they use to rate a district,” said Dr. Mike Vinson, conservator of Okolona Schools. “Okolona had 34 violations when I came on board. At this point we have corrected all but two of those and plans are in place to clear those up by June 30.”

The two district deficiencies are facility needs, such as door locks and utility shutoff valves, and the installation of a science lab at the high school.

“Everything I have seen and the progress we have made indicates the state will return the district to local control,” said Vinson.

The Okolona district was remanded into conservatorship in February 2010 due to poor academic rankings and financial instability. The school board was dissolved and the superintendents’ post saw Vinson installed as conservator.

Okolona’s previous school board had two elected positions and three positions that were appointed by the Okolona Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

But exactly how and when Okolona taxpayers will elect new school board members or when the city will be allowed to appoint new trustees has not been determined.

“This will not be a simple 30-day process,” said Vinson. “I do expect the district to be under some form of local control by the start of the school year this fall.”

A bill signed by Gov. Phil Bryant on Wednesday, places new restrictions and demands on districts returning to local control.

“The (Okolona school) district is not out of the woods, yet,” said Pete Smith, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Education. “First state trustees have to vote (Friday) and our attorneys are looking at the new legislation and how it affects districts and this process.”

One new wrinkle is districts that revert to conservatorship a second time could be consolidated with another school district or broken up and consolidated with several school districts in the area by the state.

“This is a new law and we are looking at the details,” said Smith. “It’s just too early to tell how this will work out.”

Vinson said he was pleased Okolona was at this point.

“A lot of people in the community and a lot of teachers did a lot of hard work to get Okolona here,” said Vinson. “Getting test scores up was the hardest part of this process and now we must be diligent to keep them up.”

Okolona saw all 42 seniors pass the Subject Area Testing Program 2 (SATP2) this spring, making them eligible for graduation, which is Friday night.

There are eight school districts in the state currently under state conservatorship. The Aberdeen School District was placed under state control in April.