Special to the Chickasaw Journal
OKOLONA – Okolona Superintendent Dexter Green said this week he and hundreds of patrons of the Okolona School District are opposed to consolidating with the other two school districts in Chickasaw County to form a single countywide school system.
Green also said numerous major questions raised by the possibility of consolidating nine schools in three districts have yet to be answered. None of the schools would be required to close.
Recently-introduced legislation that would combine the administration, school boards and some services of the three districts is now under discussion in Jackson.
House Bill 991 was authored by Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, a member of the House Education Committee. The proposed bill would consolidate portions of Houlka, Houston, and Okolona schools, dissolve current school boards and elect five new trustees for a Chickasaw County Consolidated School District by July 1, 2017. The bill is currently in the House Education Committee with at least 100 other proposed bills dealing with education, according to published reports.
The bill requires a 60 percent vote to pass and the signature of Gov. Phil Bryant to become law. If the bill passes, the State Board of Education would notify local schools on Sept. 1, 2016 and the process and timetable for consolidation would begin.
Should the bill pass, Chickasaw County voters would have to go to the polls on Nov. 8 to elect five new school board members, who would then hire a superintendent and one assistant superintendent. Trustees would be elected from each of Chickasaw County’s five supervisor districts, reports indicate.
No previous school board member from any of the three districts would be eligible for election.
The bill would combine nine schools – Houlka Attendance Center, Houston High School, Houston Lower Elementary, Houston Upper Elementary, Houston Middle School, Houston Vocational Center, Okolona Elementary School, Okolona High School and Okolona Vocational Complex – and would not require any of the schools to close, according to published reports.
Speaking to a packed house at the Okolona gymnasium during intermission of a basketball game, Green said Okolona district patrons want no part of the educational future envisioned in House Bill 991.
“After meeting with over 600 Okolona School District stakeholders and constituents on Tuesday, February 16, 2016, we do not desire to administratively consolidate with Houston or Houlka school districts. We believe that if administrative consolidation were to take place in Chickasaw County, our students, teachers, and administrators will not receive the appropriate attention they deserve to move the Okolona School District forward academically,” he said.
“The Mississippi Department of Education declared a state of emergency and placed a conservator over the Okolona School District in 2010. Since then, the Okolona School District has made great educational strides to include surpassing 54 school districts academically within a three-year time span.
“We feel that administrative consolidation will hinder the progress that is currently being made. We believe that we have the teachers, principals, school board, and superintendent in place to effectively lead positive educational change in the Okolona School District. It is our ultimate goal to make the Okolona School District’s name synonymous with excellence in education. With additional time, support, and much effort, we will get there,” he told the crowd.
Green said House Bill 991 has created major distractions that may have a lasting negative impact on teaching and learning in the Okolona School District.
“Students, teachers, parents, community members, and district administrators are now concerned with how administratively consolidating schools will affect our students, future employment, and the school district’s progress. House Bill 991 has been created to give power and control to others who may not have our students’ educational best interest at heart,” he said.
Green said there has been significant educational progress in student achievement in the Okolona Municipal Separate School District since the School Board was reconstituted in December 2012.
“The educational culture in our school district has changed to better support the teaching and learning process.
“As a school district, we have shown steady academic growth since our release from conservatorship. Okolona Elementary is the only “B” performing elementary school in Chickasaw County. Okolona Elementary is ranked Number 4 in the state of Mississippi for academic growth for elementary schools according to schooldigger.com, a highly reputable educational website that ranks schools academically state-wide,” Green said.
He cited figures indicating Okolona High School earned a “C” performance rating before transitioning to College and Career-Ready Standards. Okolona High School’s graduation rate increased from 57 percent to 76 percent. Okolona High School has improved 51 high school rankings after taking the most recent 2015 PARCC exams. The Okolona School District has surpassed 54 school districts academically in less than a three year time span according to the schooldigger.com website. The district is currently ranked 72 out of 126 school districts.
Green said there are other major unknowns to be considered before forced administrative consolidation of Chickasaw County Schools. Among those questions:
- How will the $2 million bond issue passed in Okolona in August 2014 affect all citizens of Chickasaw County? The bond issue will affect personal property taxes for 20 years.
- Who will be responsible for repaying the $440,000 on loan from the Mississippi Department of Education to the Okolona School District?
- How will the 1960 desegregation federal court decree and the 1974 federal court ruling in the Pickens vs. Okolona desegregation case affect schools in the Chickasaw County Consolidated School District?
- How will consolidation improve student achievement for students in the Okolona School District?
- How will consolidation affect students who attend schools in Okolona who live in Monroe County?
- Who will be responsible for selecting individuals to head the business office, federal programs, special education, transportation, and maintenance departments?
- How will district administrators be ensured secure and stable employment to better provide for their families?
Green offered the following facts and figures to show how badly the Okolona School District suffered under state conservatorship, and how far it’s come since.
- The Okolona School District was left with an $860,000 deficit after conservators left the school district April 1, 2013. That was composed of a MDE Repayment for a $500,000 loan granted in 2010. Finance charges grew the loan, and conservator fees were $330,000.
- Conservators did not make necessary corrections found in the Office of Civil Rights citations made against the Okolona School District in regards to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Office of Civil Rights has not officially cleared the Okolona School District from findings.
- The Okolona School District’s End-of Year Fund balance was extremely low during conservatorship. The End-of-Year fund balance was $319,683 during SY 2010-2011, and the End-of-Year fund balance fell to $219,226 during SY 2011-2012.
“We do agree that during conservatorship, the Okolona School District was considered as a 'systemically underperforming' school district said Green. “However, that’s the old Okolona. Students, teachers, and administrators in the new Okolona School District refuse to be found at or near the bottom 10 percent of schools that may be considered as 'systemically' under-performing across the state of Mississippi.”