By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal
OKOLONA – Parents, students, teachers and community members packed the Okolona High School gym Monday night to hear about a new direction for Okolona schools.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham said the takeover of Okolona schools, which officially started Monday, will bring stability and financial security to the district and allow teachers to work on academics with students.
“We are going to work really, really hard for the children in this school district,” he said.
Burnham and Mike Vinson, the state’s conservator for the faltering school district, spent their first day on a whirlwind tour of district facilities, meeting with faculty and staff and ending the day with a community meeting in front of more than 300 people.
As part of the state takeover, which was based on financial and academic struggles, the district’s school board and office of superintendent were dissolved and Vinson took over those roles as conservator.
Burnham told the crowd the state will focus on the least intrusive way to bring stability, financial security, long-range sustainability and academic excellence back to the 650-student district.
Burnham said Vinson will approve all financial matters of the district and supervise the day-to-day activities of all district employees.
“I understand this is an emotional issue for this community,” said Burnham. “It is an emotional issue because we are talking about your children.”
The first question asked by a member of the crowd was how long the state planned to operate Okolona schools.
“If we don’t stay long enough to sustain the changes we implement, you get a ‘turn-back’ district as soon as we leave,” said Burnham. “We will be here until the financial and academic criteria established by the state are met and we develop sustainability.”
Burnham listed eight goals the district must meet:
* The district must receive a status of Successful on the Statewide Accountability System rating with no school lower than Academic Watch.
* The district must meet the state graduation rate goal that starts with a 63 percent graduation rate this spring and rises to 77 percent by the spring of 2015.
* Specific academic targets for third-grade language arts and mathematics, established by a community council of parents, faculty and staff must be met.
* The district must meet federal accountability requirements.
* The district must repay loan made from the School District Emergency Assistance Fund.
* The district must post a fund balance of 7 percent of the total revenue deposited into the district’s maintenance fund for that year.
* The district must pass an audit of all financial statements.
* The district must achieve 100 percent compliance on all process standards for an accreditation standard of “Accredited.”
Burnham said the details of these requirements and procedures will be explained in the future.
Burnham said Okolona’s school superintendent, Stephen Gregory, will remain in a support role with the district. He also said Larry Drawdy will serve as interim deputy superintendent.
Burnham said Okolona schools will need a loan from the state’s emergency assistance fund to pay salaries and debts for this year.
“I will say that financially, Okolona schools are not in as bad a shape as other districts the state has taken over,” said Burnham. “They’ve got problems, but they are not insurmountable.”
Burnham was also questioned on the firing of teachers.
“The state has cut $205 million from its education budget and will probably cut some more,” said Burnham. “As other school districts are doing around the state, you will probably see cuts in staff. We hope this can be handled by attrition with teachers retiring, but I can’t say for sure at this point.”
Burnham said Vinson’s top priority will be to protect the classroom.
“You have some safety issues with facilities that should be corrected fairly quickly,” said Burnham. “You also have some accreditation issues that we should be able to clean up rather quickly.”
Burnham urged the community to work with Vinson.
“Good things can come out of this,” said Burnham.
Gov. Haley Barbour signed the paperwork last week to declare a state of emergency in the district. Barbour’s action follows a request by the State Board of Education two weeks ago for the state to step in and manage the district. The state board made the request citing the district’s financial troubles, poor academic performance and high dropout rate, among other factors.
The state’s plan will have Vinson provide to the state Board of Education steps Vinson will take to bring Okolona school back into line with state criteria and allow him to “exit the conservatorship.”
Vinson will begin compiling his report immediately and present that report to the state April 15. Vinson is also expected to stay into the summer to hire teachers and begin putting together a budget for the 2020-11 school year.
The state has taken over other school districts and conservatorship usually lasts several years.
Vinson has a history of serving in school districts that excel academically. Tupelo school earned high marks under his tenure. He was elected superintendent of the Rankin District before being appointed superintendent in Tupelo in the early 1990s.
Vinson left Tupelo in 2002 to become the executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Administrators.
Okolona has approximately 650 students in the system.