OUR OPINION: ‘Extreme emergency’ requires strongest action

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi’s Commission on School Accreditation recommended Wednesday that Aberdeen public schools be placed under a state conservatorship, the ultimate step available to the state Board of Education to save a school and set it on a new, successful course.
If approved for conservatorship, Aberdeen would become the eighth of 152 school districts under conservatorship. The others are: Drew, Hazlehurst, Indianola, North Panola, Okolona, Sunflower County and Tate County. Aberdeen was rated on Academic Watch late in 2011, not the lowest status before conservatorship, but it failed 31 of the 37 criteria for accreditation.
The commission characterized the Aberdeen situation as an “extreme emergency,” language suggesting extreme action to follow.
Conservatorship is not an overnight decision. Aberdeen has had school district problems over a longer time, including a shortage of funds in December to make payroll. The step requires state board approval and approval by Gov. Phil Bryant.
The language in Wednesday’s agenda described an “extreme emergency situation regarding the safety, security and educational interests of the children enrolled.”
The commission on Wednesday voted to recommend a state of emergency in the district after an audit by the state Department of Education alleged:
• Incidents that jeopardized the safety of the students.
• Instances where the local school board disregarded state and federal laws.
• A continuation of poor student performance.
In addition, the commission said the board violated open meetings laws.
The report alleges the district did not adhere to federal guidelines in terms of educating special needs children and has had financial issues. The district also has used state funds for purposes other than what they were designated, resulting in the need for the district to reimburse funds to the state, according to the audit.
Disclosure, while painful, is the only way to begin rebuilding trust among Aberdeen’s education community, including faculty and citizen backers of public education.
“We will bring forward legislation this year to end conservatorship,” state Superintendent Tom Burnham said earlier. His reform efforts so far have not been enacted.
Burnham said he would seek to ban former school board members and elected superintendents from running again in new elections in troubled districts, a smart idea. He said that forcible mergers are desirable in cases where districts are too small or too poor to raise enough money for adequate schools.
Meanwhile, using the assets and methods available appears to be the only way to proceed in recovery for Aberdeen.