Oktibbeha school takeover awaits governor's action

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Despite pleas for more time to turn around the troubled Oktibbeha County School District, the state Board of Education unanimously determined that an “extreme emergency” exists in the district and asked Gov. Phil Bryant to declare a state of emergency.
The declaration, which could come as early as today, would allow the state board to appoint a conservator to run the district who would be able to hire and fire personnel, including administrators.
Board Chair Wayne Gann of Corinth called academic performance in the rural district with less than 1,000 students “just not acceptable.”
The board acted on the advice of the Commission on School Accreditation that found “serious violations of accreditation standards” by the district and “a continuing pattern of poor student performance.”
Oktibbeha school officials said they are on the right path and requested more time. “We are on the ground running,” said Superintendent James Covington. “We just need a little more time.”
Covington said dramatic improvements have been made at the two elementary schools and that similar strides can be made at the two high schools. He said West Oktibbeha Elementary earned a B, or High Performing, ranking for the first time while East Oktibbeha Elementary had a C, or Successful, ranking.
Both high schools received F rankings and had combined graduation rates of 60 percent over a five-year period.
Paula Vanderford, director of the office of Accreditation in the Department of Education, said a state audit team reported the district did not meet 29 of 30 accreditation standards checked. Oktibbeha officials disputed many of the findings.
Vanderford said MDE had officials in the district for the past three years offer assistance but withdrew in the early spring because of the unwillingness of school personnel to work with them.
If the governor grants the state of emergency, Jayne Sargent, former Jackson superintendent, will serve as the interim conservator until near Christmas for a maximum of $58,750, including travel. After that, she will be replaced by an unidentified person who will assume those duties for the duration of the conservatorship.
Under the new conservatorship regulations, Oktibbeha’s extracurricular activities will be curtailed, such as being able to compete in only half of a normal high school football schedule.
Oktibbeha also was placed under state control in the mid-1990s.
North Panola is the only other school district placed under conservatorship twice.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com