Okolona schools won't transition instantly

By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal

The procedure that will return Okolona schools to local control will have to wait until everyone figures out how this process will work.

The Mississippi Board of Education voted to return Okolona schools to local control May 18, but state and Okolona officials are still unsure about when that transition would be and when a new school board would be appointed and elected.

“Right now it is looking like a minimum of six months to complete this process,” said Pete Smith, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Education. “We are looking at three appointments and two elected positions and filling the position of superintendent.”

The Okolona Municipal School District was placed under state control 23-months ago due to academic and financial failures. At that point the school board was dissolved and the superintendents’ post saw Dr. Mike Vinson installed as conservator.

“All I have been told is the state should start on this process with us July 1,” said Vinson. “They are working with the Attorney General on protocol and procedure.”

When the State Board of Education voted to return Okolona to local control it had initially been stated that some type of local control might be in place by the start of school this fall.

“If all the stars align and everything falls into place, that could happen,” said Smith. “We are working with local officials and state officials in this process.”

Smith said it has not been determined exactly who might appoint the first slate of trustees to the school board. Calls to Okolona City Hall said the governor would make those appointments. Calls to the Governor’s office were referred to the Department of Education.

Okolona Mayor Louise Cole would not say if she had been in touch with the state, or had a list of possible trustees, and referred calls to Vinson and the Department of Education.

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

As with all elections in Mississippi, any change in established election procedures must be pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department.

And there is a lot more at stake than violating voting rights and future federal lawsuits.

“If the district does revert to conservatorship the district will be abolished or split up and merged with other districts or consolidated with area districts,” said Smith. “It is very important that the right leaders are chosen and the success of the district is sustained.”

The Mississippi Department of Education is consulting with the Mississippi Attorney General’s office to determine the election process that will install a new school board. Items to be hammered out are how to stagger the terms of trustees and when and how a new superintendent will be named.

“We are not sure if the Governor would make that appointment or the local school board,” said Smith. “We do know that previous trustees cannot be re-appointed to the school board.”

Smith urged patience by the community while details are ironed out.

“When the decisions are made on how this new process will work we will get that information out to everyone,” said Smith.

Vinson said he initially heard the governor would appoint trustees.

“This is new legislation that deals with conservatorship that was implemented this year,” said Vinson. “I have heard a number of different scenarios and we are waiting to see what the Attorney General says before we make any move.”

Vinson said he has not heard any names suggested as trustees and has not been approached by anyone seeking the post.

Vinson said teachers and administrators with the district are busy with summer school and preparing for classes this fall.

Okolona schools have seen dramatic improvements since the district was taken over by the state in February 2010.

The state Board of Education mandates 37 accreditation standards that school districts must meet. Those standards include such items as ensuring properly licensed personnel, providing student safety, publishing school board activities and meeting certain academic standards.

Okolona initially had 34 violations of the 37 specific standards used to rate a school district. Okolona has corrected all but two minor violations and Vinson said this week those should be fixed by the end of this month.

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

The district also continues to see a high level of community involvement in schools.

Eight of the state’s 152 districts are currently in conservatorship. The Aberdeen School District was placed under state control in April.