State set to meet about Aberdeen school system

JACKSON — State officials have signaled they could be seeking to take over an eighth school district even as they consider fundamental changes to the process of state control, called conservatorship.

Mississippi’s Commission on School Accreditation is scheduled to meet Wednesday in Jackson and appears poised to declare a state of emergency in the 1,400-student Aberdeen district, which educates students in parts of Monroe County.

Any such declaration would then move on to the state Board of Education and Gov. Phil Bryant before becoming effective.

It’s unclear what’s prompting the meeting, although in an unrelated discussion of school finances earlier this year, a state official said Aberdeen had trouble making payroll in December. The state’s academic performance rating system has Aberdeen on “academic watch,” usually not low enough to prompt a takeover.

The language in Wednesday’s agenda indicates an “extreme emergency situation regarding the safety, security, and educational interests of the children enrolled.” Such language lines up with state rules on one of the reasons that can prompt a takeover.

Mississippi Department of Education spokesmen refused requests Tuesday from The Associated Press to discuss the situation or release in advance a copy of materials sent to commission members. They said lawyers were still working on the full materials that commission members would receove Wednesday.

Seven of the state’s 152 school districts are now under state control: Drew, Hazlehurst, Indianola, North Panola, Okolona, Sunflower County and Tate County.

Blake Wilson, the chief executive of the Mississippi Economic Council who sits on the commission as a citizen representative, pushed for more openness in a commission proceeding earlier this year when the Jackson city system’s accreditation was under scrutiny. He said Tuesday he was told not to release any information before the meeting.

Royce Stephens, president of the Aberdeen school board, said he plans to appear Wednesday, but said he didn’t know why exactly state officials were trying to remove the current superintendent and board.

“I haven’t received any information,” Stephens said. “They told me I had 10 minutes to speak.”

Stephens acknowledged the district had faced accreditation and financial issues, but said current leaders are moving to remedy the situation.

“We can take care of our own problems here if given a chance,” Stephens said.

State officials have expressed concern that districts released from state control may slip back into their bad habits, prompting a second takeover.

Laws are moving through the Legislature that could let the state abolish or forcibly merge districts that are taken over for a second time, although opposition has bogged that proposal down. Another proposal would allow the accrediting commission to withdraw accreditation, allowing students to transfer elsewhere and ending interscholastic sports in a district. The state also wants to merge the Drew, Indianola and Sunflower County schools into one district.

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