By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
2011 has been a year of change and transition for the Starkville School District which culminated in the resignation of the superintendent and a search for her replacement.
The year started off quietly with the SSD Board of Trustees addressing maintenance issues, the need for a field house at Starkville High School and a proposed change to block scheduling for Armstrong Middle School and Starkville High School. The district set a goal of raising the graduation rate from approximately 60 percent to 75 percent and also participation in extracurricular activities up to 60 percent.
In February, board President Bill Weeks ended his 20 years of service to the board, and Pickett Wilson was voted to be his replacement.
On April 20, the school board called a special meeting, which was held in executive session, to discuss a personnel matter. Following the meeting, Wilson announced Superintendent Judy Couey was still the superintendent but had taken a leave of absence. Wilson declined to discuss why Couey took the leave, the matters discussed and actions taken under executive session.
Wilson said the board’s minutes from executive session would be read at the May meeting, and board attorney Dolton McAlpin advised board members to speak through the minutes and said, “until those minutes are approved, the board has taken no action.”
Following a lengthy meeting held in executive session one week later, Couey resigned citing her health as the reason for her departure. She received an $80,000 financial settlement. The board also released the minutes from the April 20 meeting, which revealed the board had voted unanimously to direct Couey to take administrative leave and allowed special counsel Ben Piazza to consult with the superintendent through her attorney on her continued employment in the district. The minutes, however, did not explain the reason the board put Couey on leave, and Wilson declined to comment on the situation due to confidentiality.
Couey released a statement which said the superintendent position was demanding and it had taken a toll on her health.
Assistant Superintendent Beth Sewell was named acting superintendent following Couey’s resignation, a title later changed to interim superintendent.
The school board faced some criticism in May for not explaining the circumstances surrounding Couey’s departure. Aldermen Roy A. Perkins and Jeremiah Dumas were vocal in their disapproval of the school board’s decision to disclose what had occurred during the executive session on April 20. Perkins said the secrecy reflected poorly on the city and the board of aldermen, while Dumas called it a misuse of power “to further distance the issue at hand from a concerned citizenry.”
In another meeting later that month, Perkins called for Wilson’s resignation from the school board, saying he would not support her if she chose to pursue reappointment in 2012 because of her involvement in a controversy that was not in the best interest of the community. Dumas agreed that the controversy harmed the reputation of the school board.
“I never buy sausage that tastes bad, looks bad, smells or that I don’t just generally trust. I hate to use sausage as an analogy of board business, but it actually fits, and this sausage stinks, the package is bad and no one is buying it,” he said.
The aldermen weren’t the only ones to criticize the school board. At a special meeting held in May to draft a superintendent search plan, the school board ejected parent Kathleen Oliveri after she went over the board’s time limit of three minutes for public comment. During her comments, Oliveri said the board mishandled accusations of harassment and sexual assault within the district, adding, “It’s past time for some of you to resign.”
Later that month, Wilson stepped down from her position as board president. She will continue to serve as a board member until her term expires in March 2012. Board Vice President Keith Coble took over as president.
With the bulk of the controversy behind it, the district turned its attention toward the superintendent search. Though the original plan developed by board member Eric Heiselt called for applications for the position to be collected in the summer, the process took much longer.
The Mississippi School Board Association took over the search process and held a series of hearings with the public and employees of the district to determine qualities the new superintendent should posses. Participants in each session described a candidate who would be a part of the community, have strong communication skills and would restore the community’s faith in the school district.
The district accepted applications from Sept. 12 through Oct. 31 and received 22 applicants from eight states. MSBA handled the initial interviews, background and reference checks and compiled the information into an extensive report which was given to the board on Dec. 15.
While the identities of the applicants have not been disclosed, the candidates bring a wide variety of experience to the table — six are superintendents, three are assistant superintendents, two are former superintendents, two are directors of curriculum, five are school principals, three are independent consultants and one is an assistant to the conservator of a school district. Two applicants have master’s degrees in education, while the rest have doctorate degrees.
While 14 of the candidates are from Mississippi, there are also two from Alabama and one from Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico and Pennsylvania each. Nineteen of the applicants are male while three are female.
The board now has the task of reviewing the report before its January meeting, when members are expected to narrow the list of candidates for interviews. Coble said he was unsure when those interviews would begin or how the rest of the timeline might unfold.
During 2011, the school board also vowed to clean up the district’s financial records after the annual fiscal audits were delayed dating back to 2008. The board held an exit conference with the accounting firm that handled the 2009 fiscal year audit this fall, which ideally would have taken place within weeks of its completion.
Coble said having impeccable financial records by the time a new superintendent took office is vital to the district. SSD has since taken steps to catch up on audits. In January, the board is expected to hold exit conferences for both the 2010 and 2011 fiscal year audits.
Despite a difficult year for the school board, Coble said he felt good about where the district and the board are headed as the new year approaches.
“I think we’re doing things that are constructive, from running the superintendent search and dealing with some of the other issues we’ve dealt with lately. We’ve got a lot of good things going on in our schools. While you’re sitting there dealing with votes on various policy issues and things of that nature, it’s what the teachers are doing in the classrooms that really matters,” he said. “I really like the direction we’re headed right now.”