October 2, 2012 10:45:46 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - email@example.com
CRAWFORD -- Oktibbeha County parents got their first glimpse Monday night of the woman tasked with getting their schools back on track following last week's state takeover.
But though she is replacing district superintendent James Covington, new conservator Jayne Sargent said her only motive is ensuring the educational future of the 900-plus children enrolled in the district's four schools.
More than 200 people endured slick roads and inclement weather to attend a public meeting at East Oktibbeha High School Monday night to learn what changes they can expect now that the state is in control of the district. Officials with the Mississippi Department of Education tried to allay fears of teacher dismissals and other drastic measures, saying their primary concern is the well-being of the students.
Friday, Gov. Phil Bryant approved the Mississippi Board of Education's request to declare a state of emergency within the district due to poor student performance and a spate of safety and accreditation issues.
Of the 37 accreditation standards districts are required to meet, Oktibbeha County School District was found in violation of 29. MDE Spokesman Pete Smith said auditors only reviewed 30 of the standards before deciding it was unnecessary to examine the remaining seven.
Sargent, who will serve as interim conservator until a permanent conservator is selected, met with faculty and staff earlier Monday, and she will begin teacher evaluations today to assess district needs and deficiencies.
Both Smith and Sargent said they were pleased by Monday night's turnout, but they stressed parental involvement will be critical throughout the conservatorship, which could take several years, though they declined to offer a timeline.
"I think, by the turnout, that the community cares," Smith said. "That's what we like to see, because it's going to take the community to turn around the schools."
Blame for the district's woes cannot be placed solely upon teachers, Sargent said, adding that the most important thing, at this point, is for parents to continue their support, both at school and at home.
"Stay with your children, ask questions, talk to teachers," Sargent said. "Don't let tonight be the last time. We can do this, but we can only accomplish this as a team."
County school board chairman Curtis Snell lurked near the fringes of the crowd Monday night, stopping periodically to talk with parents, teachers and old friends.
He's been on the school board for 15 years, the past five of which he served as chairman. Now that the state is in control and conservatorship is underway, the board has been disbanded.
Snell expressed frustration at the outcome, saying they were given only 48 hours to compile documents to argue their case to the state board last week in Jackson. He alleges that when they arrived, the board rendered a decision without looking at the requested materials.
Though the district was listed on academic watch, receiving a "D" rating on the state's accountability "report cards" last month, Snell said the schools are not bad, and the students are learning.
Snell graduated from East Oktibbeha High School in 1976, and his grandchildren attend East Oktibbeha Elementary.
He dismissed the failing grades of both county high schools, saying times have changed since he was in school, but he feels like he received a good education.
"It wasn't academics, it was safety and other issues," Snell said of the accreditation violations with which the district is charged. "We don't know what all prompted this, and we were never given any explanation."
But Snell is unequivocally certain of one thing: He doesn't intend to run for re-election to the board once the district is returned to local control.
"I'd hate to be accused of trying to sabotage something that's going to benefit any child," he said. "I'm optimistic about (the takeover). I know it will work, regardless of who's in charge."
Sargent, a native of Lucedale, has been an educator for 37 years, including serving as superintendent for the Meridian and Jackson public school systems. As interim conservator, she will reportedly earn $46,750, plus a $12,000 travel stipend for the length of her contract, which ends Dec. 14.
Oktibbeha County School District is one of eight Mississippi districts currently under state control.
Carmen K. Sisson is news editor at The Dispatch.