By STEVEN NALLEY
Mississippi Department of Education officials fielded questions from several parents, alumni, faculty, staff and other community members Monday evening at East Oktibbeha County High School, and while they did not have an answer for every question, they revealed plans to keep the community in touch as the state’s takeover of the Oktibbeha County School District proceeds.
Instead of taking questions from audience members one by one, the MDE representatives gave a brief presentation to the public and then allowed guests to approach each of them with their questions. Guests huddled around each MDE representative as a result, with questions ranging from the status of the schools’ sports programs to the total duration of the state’s planned presence in the district, the latter of which MDE Legislative Services Director Pete Smith said has not been determined yet.
“The quicker we can turn it around, the quicker we’ll be out,” Smith said. “There’s some districts we’ve been in for four years. There’s some districts we’ve been in for seven years or more.”
MDE Conservatorship Director Bill Welch said he was not certain about the effects the state accreditation board’s findings would have on the school’s sports programs, either.
“We should hopefully have that answer within a week,” Welch said.
With many answers still forthcoming, Welch said, the MDE is making plans to allow community members to submit questions to MDE, giving MDE attorneys the opportunity to review answers before they are disseminated to the public. How those answers will be disseminated, he said, has yet to be determined.
“It could be disseminated either through the schools as handouts or something going out through the website,” Welch said. “We’ll see what the community thinks works best. I gave some examples of how we did it in Sunflower County, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best way here.”
Welch said MDE will also form an advisory council known as a P16 in addition to the district’s similar PTA. He said districts taken over by the state usually form P16s four to six months after their conservators arrive, but the OCSD’s P16 may take less time to form. In the meantime, he said, the OCSD’s PTA will be critical.
“If you’re not a member of the PTA or you haven’t been going, you need to attend,” Welch said, “because that’s going to be one of our major ways of getting information to the public.”
One of the guests present at Monday’s meeting was Bennie Jones, who, as OCSD attorney, worked with the district’s board and superintendent during the MDE’s investigation of accreditation standards. Jones said not only was the MDE’s decision a surprise, but so was the MDE’s investigation as a whole.
“(The board was) surprised at the speed at which things proceeded,” he said. “They had gotten a letter indicating that they would be given 30 days to clear up any alleged deficiencies in their accountability standards, and they were only given less than 48 hours to appear before the accreditation commission and the state board of education. They only had less than 48 hours to prepare.”
The president of that board, Curtis Snell, was also present at EOCHS Monday. He said he is not certain if information existed that could have changed the final decision made by the Mississippi Board of Education and Gov. Phil Bryant that would have led to the state’s takeover, but he still wishes the district had more time.
“If we had been given that extra 30 days, I feel like it’s possible that the deficiencies would have either been corrected, or if they were stated incorrectly, that we would have had time to show them the documentation of where they were incorrect,” Snell said. “With the report that was given, if I had been the governor, I would have made the same decision.”
MDE Communications Director Patrice Guilfoyle said it is true that MBE policy typically allows school districts 30 days to respond to problems the state accreditation board finds. Because the state accreditation board found the OCSD to be in a state of emergency, she said, state statute overrules board policy and allows the state to move more quickly — hence, the 48-hour notice.
“That was clearly explained (to the OCSD board and superintendent) at ... both the accreditation board meeting and the MDE board meeting,” Guilfoyle said. “Also, our office of school improvement has been working with that school (district) for a while.”
Snell said he and other members of the board share in shock over the state’s takeover, but they also share in a desire to see the state of the district improve. He said he recognizes that the state officials handling that takeover share this desire as well.
“We are here to support whatever decision that is in place to help bring our children to where they need to be,” Snell said. “I feel like the governor did what he felt was in the best interests of the students. As long as it’s for the good of the students, the good of the community, then I’m on board. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge.”