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New law ‘will hold school districts accountable’

A bill Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law last week will make it easier for the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) to take over school districts deemed “failing” by the state.

The Children First Act of 2009 removes the stipulation that requires a school district to request assistance from the MDE. Under the new law, the state can set forth a recovery plan for a failing district to implement. After two years, if the district has showed no improvement under the plan, Barbour can declare a state of emergency, opening the door for state conservatorship.

“We think it’s fabulous,” said Mississippi Parents’ Campaign executive director Nancy Loome. “That was one of our primary initiatives this (legislative session).

State Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds says the intent of the bill is to help districts avoid a state takeover.

“Even the smallest decisions that are made in a school district can impact the educational experience that our boys and girls have in the classroom,” Bounds said in a news release. “This new law will give us the confidence that our leaders are making the right choices that always put children first.”

The bill had its beginning last year when a legislative task force on education made it a part of its recommendations.

Said Loome: “It is not at all intended to be punitive. It’s intended to be preventive.”

Some of the bill’s provisions will:

• Remove superintendents and school board members when a school district has been considered “failing” for two consecutive school years.

• Create a Mississippi Recovery School District to govern school districts that have been taken over by the state.

• Require school district officials, when a financial advisor has been appointed to the district, to report to the State Board of Public Accountancy when an audit completed by a contracted firm is thought to be deficient in any manner.

• Require school districts that are designated as “failing” to establish a P-16 Council that includes representatives from the school, business and local community.

• Require all school districts to publish annually a report that includes specific achievement and financial data as set by the State Board of Education.

The State Board of Education will make the “failing” designation.

“To give all our children the best chance at a bright future, our schools must perform to the best of their abilities,” Barbour said in a news release. “The Children First Act allows the state to step into troubled districts relatively early and begin their turnaround.”

The final version of the bill cleared the Senate unanimously. Only four members of the House voted against it. It takes effect immediately.

“Regardless of some of the significant obstacles our boys and girls are facing, I truly believe they are all eager to learn and more than capable of excelling in our schools,” Bounds said. “The Children First Act seeks to ensure that the leaders of all our schools believe that, too, and are taking appropriate actions to make sure all children receive a first-rate education.”

At his bill signing ceremony, Barbour also announced that the state had landed a $150,000 grant from the National Governors Association. The grant, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will pay for the formulating of a plan for improving chronically low-performing schools. Mississippi is one of four states to receive the grant.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .

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