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State officials begin school district takeover

October 2, 2012

Mississippi Department of Education representatives confirmed Monday at East Oktibbeha County High School that no Oktibbeha County School District faculty or staff, except the superintendent and board of trustees, have been dismissed, but the MDE will evaluate all faculty and staff.

MDE Legislative Services Director Pete Smith said he and his fellow representatives met with former OCSD Superintendent Jam es Covington Monday and gave him a copy of Gov. Phil Bryant’s declaration of a state of emergency in the OCSD, which authorized the state’s takeover. OCSD board members received copies as well, he said, and he confirmed Covington will not be receiving a severance package.

“I don’t think the law calls for that,” Smith said. “Mr. Covington and the school board members have now been relieved of their duties here, so they no longer have any authority or any decision-making (ability) when it comes to the OCSD. All the decisions will be made by Dr. (Jayne) Sargent in conjunction with the state board of education. That’s not to say Mr. Covington and the school board members are bad people. I’m sure they’re good people.”

But, Smith said, the OCSD only met one of the 30 accreditation standards the MDE evaluated, prompting action by the MDE accreditation board, followed by the Mississippi Board of Education and, finally, the governor. Smith said Sargent’s work as the district’s conservator began Monday, and Sargent said evaluation of faculty, staff and administrators begins this week.

“Every teacher is still hired, every principal is still hired, but they will be evaluated throughout the year,” Sargent said. “If some of them need support to get better, we’ll give it to them, but if some of them just can’t do the job, we’ll let them know.”

Sargent said she was very pleased with the turnout at EOCHS Monday.

Hundreds of parents, students, faculty, staff, alumni and other community members swelled the EOCHS gymnasium’s stands and packed its parking lot. She said the first step to getting the district back on track will be examining every detail of the accreditation board’s report.

“Some of it is simple stuff we can do quickly; other things, like the curriculum end of it, will take time,” Sargent said. “Submitting data on time and accurately, ensuring (that) children have sufficient Carnegie credits, that teachers are teaching (for) the amount of time it takes for each course and that teachers have adequate planning time — those kinds of things can be handled overnight. The performance of students is critical, and that’s where it really does help if parents and teachers can work together to get things done.”

Smith said the seniors at both of the county’s high schools will be Sargent’s top priority, because the MDE wants to see all the seniors graduate.

“The first order of business when we go into any district with a conservatorship is to see where those seniors stand,” Smith said. “Dr. Sargent’s going to come in and review the seniors that are (in the class of 2013), to see what they need, to see if they’re even on track to graduate, and if not, to determine what they need to see if we can get them to graduate.”

Bill Welch, MDE conservatorship director, said Sargent will remain in place through December, after which a permanent replacement superintendent will come in. He said Sargent will schedule further community meetings to disseminate more information as the state takeover progresses.

“We’re not going to make major changes tomorrow, but you may see some major changes by this time next week,” Welch said. “We will definitely look at what’s going on first. It’s not going to be based off just jumping in and doing something to say we’re doing something. It’s going to be based off data and sound principles.”

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