September 28, 2012 10:20:35 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The Oktibbeha County School District is the latest in a growing number of districts seized by the Mississippi Department of Education and placed under state control due to poor student performance and other accreditation issues.
The state Board of Education voted unanimously during a special session Thursday to ask Gov. Phil Bryant to declare a state of emergency in the district -- the last step before conservatorship, which allows a governing entity to take control of an organization if the action is approved by a statutory or regulatory authority.
Though Bryant had not signed the paperwork by late Thursday night, MDE wasted no time appointing an interim conservator. The Clarion-Ledger reports that Jayne Sargent, former superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, will fill the role for a 90-day temporary period, replacing Oktibbeha Superintendent James Covington immediately. The school board will also be disbanded.
A public meeting will be held Oct. 1 for parents, faculty and members of the community to talk with MDE officials and ask questions. The location and time has not yet been set.
MDE found the district in violation of 29 of 30 required accreditation standards, showing a record of poor student performance, inaccurate and unreported personnel and payroll documents, failure to report complete and accurate board meeting minutes and school buses which failed to meet safety inspections.
The district is listed on academic watch, receiving a "D" rating based upon 2010-2011 student performance on state accountability tests. Both high schools received failing grades on the state's accountability "report card," issued earlier this month.
The district's graduation rate is 59 percent, with 60.9 percent graduating from East Oktibbeha High School and 53.6 percent graduating from West Oktibbeha High School.
Although low, the rankings are still higher -- for the most part -- than the previous year, when the district was ranked as low-performing, the equivalent of an "F" on the new grading scale.
East Oktibbeha Elementary this year rose from low-performing to successful, the equivalent of a "C," and West Oktibbeha Elementary increased its standing from successful to high-performing, a "B" on the new scale.
In September 2011, a five-person team of retired educators was assigned by MDE to work with faculty at East Oktibbeha Elementary and East Oktibbeha High School to try to improve scores to prevent a takeover.
But Covington, who was in Jackson for the meeting Thursday, pleaded for additional time, telling Mississippi Public Broadcasting that the principals are "instructionally-driven and moving in the right direction."
"Some things are going right in the Oktibbeha County School District," Covington said. "Just give us, as district officials, the opportunity to correct it."
But the district has failed to meet the academic needs of students, particularly at East Oktibbeha County High School, which has ranked as failing for the past three years, Dr. Wayne Gann, chairman of the state board of education, stated in an MDE press release Thursday.
Around the state
There are multiple reasons a school district can end up in conservatorship: If a situation in the district "jeopardizes the safety or educational interests of the children enrolled in the schools in that district," if a district is defined as failing for two consecutive years, if more than 50 percent of the schools within a district are ranked at-risk in any given year, financial mismanagement or a lack of operating funds and/or a continued pattern of poor student performance.
The Aberdeen School District was taken over in April after district officials called MDE asking for help because they were unable to meet payroll or pay utilities. An audit by MDE revealed numerous additional infractions, including poor student performance.
Noxubee County School District, which faced the specter of conservatorship in 2009, dropped from academic watch to low-performing, receiving an "F" this year, while Columbus Municipal School District and West Point School District remained on academic watch, both receiving a "D."
Graduation rates were not figured into this year's rankings due to purported unequal standards among schools. A report by MDE stated that if graduation rates had been factored in, 10 of 152 districts and 26 of 806 schools would have received lower letter grades.
But statewide, the number of "D" districts dropped 14 percent and the number of "F" districts dropped 26 percent.
After Thursday's decision, MDE now controls eight districts and 33 schools within the state.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.