By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
OKOLONA – Sometime between tours of the district’s schools and meetings with teachers and community members last week, the new leader of the Okolona School District walked into his office.
He let out a sigh.
“This is very difficult,” Mike Vinson said Monday, standing in a room he had moved into earlier that day. “It is almost overwhelming the amount of work to be done.
“We have a good strong staff here, and I think the framework is in place. We’ll work hard to continue to grow and improve. I’m counting on the parents to help, and we’ll get the job done.”
The longtime educator officially began working as conservator of the Okolona Municipal Separate School District on Monday. He was installed after the state Board of Education and Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency in the district because of financial troubles, accreditation issues and poor student performance.
Vinson essentially will serve as superintendent and school board in the 650-student district. He’s responsible for fixing the district’s problems as quickly as possible so that it can be returned to local control.
But before that can happen, the district must meet several rigorous criteria established by the Department of Education to assure that a second takeover won’t be needed.
The district, which was in danger of running out of money before July 1, must build up a fund balance of at least 7 percent of its total revenue. It also must correct 21 accreditation violations.
Most demanding of all, the district must receive a status of “successful” in the state accountability model, with none of the three schools ranking lower than academic watch.
Successful is the third of seven rankings in the state model; academic watch is fourth.
In addition, the district must at least meet the state graduation rate goal, which is 66 percent for the 2010-2011 school year, and increase on a sliding scale to 85 percent for 2018-19.
Vinson said meeting the goals set for student achievement will be the most difficult.
“The academic side is going to be the biggest hill to climb because you’re talking about testing children on information that is learned over a series of years,” Vinson said. “You have to go back and do some re-teaching to bring yourself up to speed.”
Okolona is one of five school districts currently operated by the state Department of Education. North Panola, Hazlehurst, Indianola and Tate are the others.
Okolona is the first one the state has taken over since the Children’s First Act was passed last year allowing the state to take over failing school districts, fire the superintendent and dissolve the school board.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham said what makes the district unique is that the state moved in quickly before the district ran out of money. By starting the conservatorship now, Vinson will be able to control next year’s budget.
“What is different about this is that we made the decision to go ahead and do it before the wheels came off the bus,” Burnham said. “In North Panola, I didn’t know they were having financial difficulty until the teachers weren’t getting paid.”
When the Department of Education ran North Panola during Burnham’s first tenure as state superintendent, it was one of the first districts in the nation to be run by the state.
Burnham now benefits from a large base of knowledge on conservatorships. Former state Superintendent Dick Boyd, who is an adviser for Burnham, served as conservator of Cleveland, Ohio, schools.
Vinson spent his first week on the job meeting people, visiting the district’s three schools and assessing its personnel and finances. He’s also begun looking at the school’s calendar for next year.
“It has been an extremely busy week,” Vinson said Thursday afternoon. “I continue to be impressed by the professionalism of the staff, their willingness to work and the reception that they’ve granted us.”
The accreditation failures faced by the district include issues such as what classes are being offered and graduation requirements not being posted. Vinson must also address health and safety hazards like replacing ceiling tiles and switch plates on lights. The conservator already has corrected “several” of the accreditation issues and said most will be easy to fix.
He’s also taken steps to improve the district’s financial health. He’s limited travel and other expenditures, and he said that the district won’t fill a couple of vacancies that he inherited.
The conservator will take a “zero budget” approach as he builds next year’s budget. He will count the number of students for each grade and see the number of classroom teachers needed to correspond. He’ll then employ an supplemental employees and administrators with remaining money.
“The teachers will come first,” Vinson said.
He said he’ll have a better idea about next year’s staff in April. He said that it was important that the conservatorship began before next year’s budget is finalized.
“It really gives us an opportunity to go in and analyze the budget,” Vinson said. “It will be easy to determine what got us into this situation so that we can avoid those pitfalls.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.