The Commission voted Wednesday to recommend a state of emergency; the State Board of Education considered the recommendation today and will vote on it Friday. If passed, the measure will go before Governor Phil Bryant, who may place the district under conservatorship that will allow the state to place a conservator in the district to oversee day to day operations.
“We do have problems, and I would be the first to admit it starts at the top,” said Robert Eiland, interim superintendent of Aberdeen schools during a Commission meeting yesterday in Jackson.
The report's resolution states: "The Commission finds that there is sufficient cause to believe that an extreme emergency situation exists in the Aberdeen School District brought on by serious findings related to serious violations of accreditation standards, violations of state and federal law, and a continued pattern of poor student performance which jeopardize the safety, security, and educational interests of the children enrolled in the schools of this District, and which, without intervention by the Commission on School Accreditation and the Mississippi Board of Education, could result in the continuation of an inadequate and unstable educational environment, thereby denying the students of this District the opportunity to learn, to excel, and to obtain a free and appropriate public education."
The report says representatives from the MDE met with the Aberdeen School Board in January and raised concerns about division and favoritism among school officials and employees, a significant decrease in district funds during five fiscal years with questions as to how school board meetings were conducted.
High teacher and administrator turnover rates, significant discipline problems and low students performance were a few of the negatives the audit addresses, which was made from Jan. 4 to 18.
During the audit, state representatives conducted confidential interviews and surveys from employees of the district and citizens of Aberdeen.
Some citizens stated the school district’s decline in recent years had a ripple effect on the town’s decline.
Because former business manager Phonecia Witherspoon was terminated in December, along with former superintendent Chester Leigh, MDE representatives were unable to obtain necessary financial data to confirm compliance with the relative financial standards for all program offices. A contracted financial consultant has reported the school district may be facing a deficit by June 30.
State officials note that “a climate of divisiveness exists not only in the Aberdeen School District, but also in the community.” Through interviews, the MDE said the community is "characterized by constant conflict, upheaval and distrust among the school board, the administration and members of the community.”
- "The school district has failed to follow established procedures and failed to report complete and accurate data to the MDE concerning assigned duties, job titles, salaries, supplements, and funding sources."
- "The school board is not in compliance with the Mississippi Open meetings Act, MS Code 25-41-1, pertaining to policies and procedures regarding special-called meetings, executives sessions, and regularly-scheduled school board meetings."
- "Special-called meetings appear to be a frequent practice rather than the exception, with one or more special-called meetings each month."
- "It is routine procedure for the Aberdeen School Board to enter into executive session to discuss all 'personnel matters,' making executive sessions a common practice at every board meeting rather than the exception to the rule."
- "There appears to be a system of favoritism and retaliation that influences board decisions regarding the recommendation of personnel."
- "The school board has failed to follow and enforce policies that comply with state and federal statutes and local school board policies concerning employment and dismissal procedures."
- "A review of the board minutes clearly revealed the school board's excessive involvement in the operational processes of the district by addressing issues such as leave for teachers, administrator schedules, schedule changes, staff travel, administrator sign-in, athletic issues, booster club, etc."
- "Due to widespread interference from the school board, the previous superintendent was unable to administer the schools in accordance with MS Code 37-9-14, and to satisfy the management responsibilities of the school district superintendent as required by State law and approved local school board policies."
- "There is no evidence to support counseling services to high school students in the areas of personal advisement, educational, and/or career planning."
- "The district has failed to develop and implement a dropout prevention plan designed to keep students in school and to lower the student dropout rates. The 2011 dropout rate for Aberdeen School District was 64.3 percent."
- "The district has not developed and implemented an organized system that effectively encourages community involvement, parental communication, and business partnerships in school district decision-making."
- "A free appropriate public education (FAPE) is not provided to all children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 20."
The audit addresses a recent 3-2 vote of the Aberdeen Board of Aldermen to reinstate Royce Stephens to the Aberdeen School Board after being advised by interim deputy superintendent of the Office of School Improvement Dr. Larry Drawdy to consider the matter carefully.
While the report mentions a violation of Section 25-4-101 of the Mississippi Code of 1972, former Ward 2 alderman Cloyd Garth defended his vote last month saying he had been through the same ordeal the year before in voting for school board member Ulaine Williams. The Mississippi Ethics Commission cleared Garth and former Ward 3 alderman David Ewing on the claims last May.
The ethics violation details how aldermen with spouses employed by the school district should recuse themselves from votes regarding that school district.
According to a report from a Clarion Ledger reporter, the Aberdeen School District’s accreditation could be taken up in June and personnel changes could go into effect in the fall.
Incoming mayor Cecil S. Belle told the Monroe Journal yesterday he hoped that he and the new board of aldermen would be given the chance to save the school. "But if the state takes it over, there's nothing we can do," he said.
Gilmore Foundation Executive Director Danny Spreitler said, ""Now is the time to focus on what is best for the children and young people who attend the Aberdeen schools. The recent events are troubling but we must not get embroiled in the political fallout but focus our energies on the children. There are great administrators and teachers who truly care about the future of the children of Aberdeen and it is time for all of us to come together and support them.
"The report from MDE is troubling and heartbreaking, but now is the time to fix a broken system so that all children are afforded the opportunities that a high quality education will provide."
Jeff Doty, owner of Penny Lane's Java Cafe in Aberdeen, said, "The problem with the school has been the school board and the problem in that has been the board of aldermen. There is no excuse for the school to not be doing better than this. I think it will do the public better to have an outside source come in to run the school without a personal agenda."
Resident David McPherson added, "I think the state should stay out of it and let the city and the school board handle it. I think the interest of the state could be a conflict of interest for the people of Aberdeen."