Takeover of Okolona schools imminent

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The state is poised to take over the Okolona School District because of poor student performance and financial troubles.
The process moved forward Monday when the Commission on School Accreditation passed a resolution recommending that the state take over the troubled system.
If, as expected, the state Board of Education approves the recommendation at its Thursday meeting and Gov. Haley Barbour issues an emergency declaration, a conservatorship will be in the Okolona District on March 1 to meet with teachers and district employees, students, parents and the general public.
The Okolona School Board and superintendent will be terminated, and the state Board of Education will in effect serve as the governing body of the system.
“The children in that school district deserve a better opportunity than what is being offered at this time,” state Superintendent Tom Burnham said during the specially called meeting of the commission, most of whose members participated via teleconference.
No member voted against the resolution to take over the district.
According to the state Department of Education, the district will run out of money before the fiscal year ends July 1.
“When a district can’t meet its contractual obligations, the state Department of Education and the state board have no choice but to step in,” Burnham said after the meeting when concerned citizens and Okolona public officials gathered to quiz him.
In addition to financial hardships, the commission found:
n The district has been unable to correct 21 of 41 accreditation problems it has been working on since November 2007.
n The district has a pattern of poor student performance. It is currently classified as failing and its performance level was lower in 2009-10 than it was the prior year.
n The commission cited concerns about “the safety, security and education interests” of the district’s students.
“I want to get the school on the right track for the kids,” said Yvonne Gunn, a mother of a second grader who drove to Jackson for the meeting. “I think it will take the community getting involved. The parents need to get involved. We have a lot of work to do.”
Blake Wilson of Jackson, a commission member, said some of the problems associated with the district were safety issues. For instance, documentation was unavailable to show if bus drivers had completed in-service training.
Gregory Stephens, the fourth superintendent the district has had in four years, pointed out to the commission he had only been at Okolona since January. He previously was an administrator in Lowndes County.
He said he understands that problems exist in the district but would like to have the opportunity to work to correct them.
Burnham praised Stephens for notifying the state Department of Education soon after becoming superintendent of the financial troubles facing the district.
Burnham said he believes Stephens would continue “to have a role” in the district. “He has been on the job since January. We recognize that,” Burnham said.
Carolyn Jones, a citizen, told the commission that the community wants to have a voice in resolving issues in the district, and that many people took issue with the short notice of the pending takeover.
Students, she said, worry that they will not receive credit for their completed coursework.
Burnham said that is not the case.
Others from the area supported the state’s action.
“We think this is going to be a good way to resolve some issues with the schools in Okolona,” said Mayor Louise Cole. She predicted the takeover would lead to a stronger community and better school system.
“It is unfortunate you have to go through this process,” said Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, who also attended the hearing. “But those children deserve a chance to compete with everybody else in the state, in the nation, in the world. Nobody is mad at anybody. We are just going to do what we can and hopefully some good will come out of this.”
Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, told the commission he and others in the community would support the state efforts to improve the district. He also pledged to work within the legislative process to obtain more education funding.
Tupelo School Board member and education consultant Eddie Prather, who spent eight years as Okolona’s superintendent, was hopeful about might happen.
“If getting the support of guidance from the state is good for the children,” he said, “then that would be the direction to go.”
Jones questioned the fairness of the state taking over the district for financial reasons since its state funding has been reduced through Barbour’s budget cuts this fiscal year.
Barbour has cut K-12 education more than $200 million because tax collections have not met projections.
Burnham said his staff is conducting surveys to determine if other districts face similar financial circumstances. He said many districts are teetering financially.
Four districts already are under state conservatorship. Burnham said the state does not have the resources to take over all the districts that face academic problems similar to those in Okolona. What currently sets Okolona apart, resulting in the immediate action, is its financial situation.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.