The Mississippi Board of Education has voted to ask Gov. Phil Bryant to declare a state of emergency for the Oktibbeha County School District, to abolish the school district's accreditation, to remove the county school board and district superintendent James Covington and to select former Jackson School District Superintendent Jayne Sargent as the district's conservator for a 90-day interim, MDE official confirmed Thursday.
The vote came during a special-called MBE meeting Thursday in Jackson, preceded by a special-called meeting where the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation determined the district had an emergency situation that jeopardizes its students' safety, security and educational interests. MDE communications director Patrice Guilfoyle said MDE officials will hold a public meeting Monday evening at East Oktibbeha County High School to discuss a plan to help the district meet accreditation requirements, preceded by a meeting with the OCSD's administration, faculty and staff. Guilfoyle said the public meeting's exact time has not yet been determined.
"We're trying to firm that up," Guilfoyle said. "We want to make sure it's at a time when parents and community members who work can get out there."
Guilfoyle said the district is in violation of 29 of the 30 accreditation standards the Mississippi Department of Education reviewed. District students' poor academic performance, particularly in the district's two high schools, was the primary concern, she said, and other concerns included failure to report complete and accurate data on employee contracts, lists of staff, payroll reports and official board minutes.
"The school board was not in compliance with state and federal statutes and rules concerning current school board rules and policies that should be published and available for public review," Guilfoyle said. "Some of our auditors, they were told the information was available on the (district's) website, but they couldn't find it."
While EOCHS's classification as failing for the last three years was one reason for the board's decision, Guilfoyle said, the board's decision to designate EOCHS as a New Start school and its decision to abolish the district's accreditation are two separate matters. She said the MBE made no decisions about the implications of EOCHS's New Start status Thursday, leaving those decisions to the district's conservator.
"New Start applies only for EOCHS, but the board felt there was enough evidence ... to say there was a district problem that needed to be resolved," Guilfoyle said. "(The violation of 29 accreditation standards) was in reference to an audit that was conducted this year. Our Office of School Improvement has been working with the district over the last several years."
Where EOCHS will be the state's first New Start school since the state passed the New Start School Program and Conversion Charter School Act in 2010, Guilfoyle said, the accreditation loss and resulting conservatorship is not without precedent — the state took the same action in the Aberdeen School District in April. Pending Gov. Bryant's approval, she said, the board's decision will amount to a full state takeover of the Oktibbeha County School District. She said a timeline for Bryant's decision has not been determined.
Guilfoyle said this will not be Sargent's first time taking charge of an ailing school district. When the Jackson Public School Board voted not to renew Lonnie Edwards' contract as superintendent in 2011, Sargent served as interim superintendent until the district hired Cedrick Gray the same year. At the time, Sargent was retired after serving as the Jackson school district's superintendent for several years, she said.
"She has years of experience," Sargent said.
Guilfoyle said both Covington and county school board president Curtis Snell were present at the meeting. Calls placed to Covington were not returned by press time. In a previous report a few days after EOCHS was designated as a New Start school, Covington said it was important for MDE to not look at the district's failures exclusively. The district's overall designation has risen from an F to a D, from "low-performing" to "academic watch," he said, and West Oktibbeha County Elementary School received a B and was named a high-performing school for its 176-point Quality of Distribution Indez(QDI), which is used to measure achievement.
"If given the time, we'll make sure (this same) growth happens at East High," Covington said. "It didn't happen last year, but given the time, we'll make it happen. Everything is not doom and gloom. Boys and girls are learning in the OCSD. We have problems at East High — I'll be the first to recognize that — but we're going to fix those problems."
At that time, Covington also said EOCHS ranking as a failing school for the third year in a row, with a QDI of 94, was a surprise. According to the OCSD's internal information, he said, practice tests showed promise of an improved QDI score.
"Each time, we were making gains," Covington said. "The (practice test) scores did indicate we were moving in the right direction. We're not certain what happened on the actual assessment."