A crowd of concerned parents gathers around new Aberdeen Conservator Bob Strebeck Tuesday night in the Aberdeen High School Gym. The Aberdeen School District has been taken over by the state and is now one of eight schools under conservatorship. Interim Superintendent Robert Eiland has been demoted to his former position as operations manager, and the school board has been dismissed. Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson/Dispatch Staff
April 25, 2012 11:57:15 AM
ABERDEEN -- Shortly before Christmas, the ailing Aberdeen School District sent a distress signal to the Mississippi Department of Education by way of a phone call and a plea for help.
That phone call led to a state audit, which ended with Gov. Phil Bryant signing an Emergency Declaration Friday and state education officials holding a daylong series of meetings Tuesday to explain what happens next as the district relinquishes control to the state.
Aberdeen is one of eight Mississippi districts being taken over by conservatorship, a process which allows a governing entity to seize control over an organization, if the action is approved by a statutory or regulatory authority.
In the case of school systems, the state department of education replaces the superintendent and school board with a state-hired conservator tasked with bringing the district back in line with state education standards.
Aberdeen Conservator Bob Strebeck Tuesday stood in the Roy Hazzle Gymnasium beneath a ceiling festooned with blue championship pennants dating back to 1958, denoting happier years. A crowd of more than 600 concerned parents sat quietly in the bleachers, occasionally punctuating Strebeck's statements with rounds of applause.
It was the best community support he's seen, Strebeck said after the meeting. Aberdeen marks the retired Newton County administrator's fifth stint as a conservator. He previously held the position in Sunflower, Tate, North Panola and Jefferson Davis counties. Drew, Hazlehurst, Indianola and Okolona are also under conservatorship.
Aberdeen Interim Superintendent Robert Eiland will return to his former position as the district's operations manager. The school board, including Board President Royce Stephens, has been disbanded.
Now that the state holds control over the six-school, 1,400-pupil district, parents, administrators and staff will have to accept a new set of rules, Strebeck told the crowd.
District employees will be expected to do their jobs or risk dismissal. And school board meetings are a thing of the past.
"There's an agenda, and when I sign it, that's the board meeting," Strebeck said. "Don't come in with the idea you're going to sit down and discuss it with me. It is what it is. It's not about me, and it's not about you."
Strebeck's blunt statement drew claps and chuckles from the parents. Few were surprised by the state's action. Instead, most said they were pleased the troubled district is getting the help it needs.
'A huge red flag'
If district officials had not called the Mississippi Department of Education in December, they might have continued to hold their tenuous grip on the situation.
Two weeks before Christmas, the board voted 3-2 to fire then-Superintendent Chester Leigh, who had served in the top position since 2009 and had signed a three-year contract at $90,000 per year.
The same day, the board fired Chief Financial Officer Phonecia Witherspoon.
That was enough to raise the suspicion of the state, MDE spokesman Pete Smith said Tuesday evening. But then more dire news came from Aberdeen: The school board called to say they couldn't meet the month's payroll; they couldn't even pay the district's power bill.
Without a superintendent or business manager, they couldn't sign for a loan, and there was no one they could turn to for advice. So when they turned to MDE for help, State Superintendent Dr. Tom Burnham initiated an audit.
"When school systems can't meet payroll, that raises a huge red flag," Smith said. "A conservatorship is the very last resort. MDE does not want to be here."
While investigating the district, state education officials learned Aberdeen had failed 31 of 37 accountability standards required by the state Office of Accreditation, Smith said.
The Associated Press last week cited the state investigation, alleging a number of infractions, including allowing students to graduate even when they didn't meet state requirements, faulty hiring, firing and promotion policies based upon a "system of favoritism and retaliation," violation of federal laws regarding special education, possible ethics violations including paying for board members' home Internet service, "low academic performance, safety violations and questionable use of district dollars."
AP cited reports of open meetings violations and "failure to report two investigations into alleged incidents of teacher sexual misconduct," as well as "inappropriate expenditures, including inordinate salaries and raises."
Bryant, in his Emergency Declaration, said it was crucial for the state to take control to help the district "recover from serious leadership and management deficiencies."
"Accreditation violations, state and federal law violations and a continued pattern of poor student performance are unfortunate and will not be tolerated," Bryant said in the declaration. "The students and community of Aberdeen deserve better."
Strebeck, who reportedly will make $170,000 per year plus travel expenses, said he wouldn't be surprised if the district remains under conservatorship two to three years or more.
"There's no set time," he said. "It depends on the issues the conservator faces. I haven't even been to the schools yet."
He attributed the takeover to district officials' "poor decision making and poor leadership."
It is a sentiment echoed by many.
'We dropped the ball'
"They're here because we dropped the ball," Incoming Mayor Cecil Belle told the audience Tuesday. "The children should be our focus. When we lose accreditation, then what's going to happen? We're going to have serious problems."
Belle, backed by Pastor Jimmy Pounds, of Canaan Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus, encouraged residents to join forces and support MDE's efforts.
"We now have to come together to get out of our situation," Belle said. "I'm pleading to you: Let's all stick together. Let's move forward."
After the meeting, parents and community members seemed ready to embrace Belle's advice.
Rodney Rendle has a daughter, Breana, who is a senior, and a son, Roger, who is a seventh-grader. As he leaned on an upper level railing in the gym and watched the proceedings, he said he supports the coup.
"I think it's good for our schools, if it's used the way it should be used," Rendle said. "There were a lot of disagreements (amongst the board). It was more about the adults than about making decisions for the kids."
As parents filed out of the gym, into the late evening sunset, maintenance workers stood beneath the basketball court and waited to switch off the lights.
At the moment, it's uncertain when a new championship pennant will be added to Aberdeen High School's collection. They won't know, until June, if they will even continue to have sports.
Strebeck said if the district loses accreditation, there will be no sports, until they rise to at least probationary level. At the moment, the game plan focuses on academics, safety issues and finances.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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