Board mulling state takeover of local school district

CLAIBORNE COUNTY — The state Board of Education has pulled back from revoking the accreditation of the Claiborne County schools, but only to consider a state takeover of the district.

The board announced today that it voted unanimously in closed session yesterday to order the state’s accrediting commission to determine whether there is a state of emergency in the school system.

Board members had been scheduled to vote today on revoking accreditation but decided to examine more severe measures after a lengthy executive session yesterday. State board Chairman Wayne Gann of Corinth said members were concerned that the district could not remedy problems between the superintendent and its school board, including improper school board intervention in day-to-day operations of the 1,800-student system.

“We would like for the commission to determine if there’s a reasonable prospect of that being remedied,” Gann said after today’s meeting.

The accrediting commission next meets Sept. 10, which means the full board could call for a state of emergency at its Sept. 13 meeting. If Gov. Phil Bryant then approves, the state Board of Education could appoint a conservator, deposing Claiborne County’s elected superintendent and board.

Officials have been investigating the Claiborne system since fall 2011. The inquiry started with questions over spending of federal funds, expanding to examine Claiborne County’s compliance with all state standards.

Department of Education officials have wanted to move away from takeovers, instead revoking accreditation. Loss of accreditation means districts can play only half their regular season high school athletic games and can’t participate in playoffs. It does not affect a high school student’s chance of being admitted into college.

Revoking accreditation without taking over the district is meant to build community pressure on a school board and superintendent for changes, officials have said. But Gann said that if the main problem is with the board and superintendent, community pressure may be an ineffective strategy.

“They can’t unseat the superintendent and the board,” Gann said.

The state currently controls seven districts — Aberdeen, Sunflower-Drew, Indianola, Oktibbeha County, North Panola, Hazlehurst and Tate County. The state is moving to return the latter three to local control. Under current law, any district taken over by the state also would lose its accreditation. Oktibbeha County is the only district currently without accreditation. The other six districts were taken over before the law was changed.

Yesterday, in the board’s open meeting, a lawyer for the Claiborne County system told the board that the system believes it hasn’t fully exhausted its legal appeals and hasn’t been properly notified of the legal proceedings.

“Right now, you just have one side of it,” lawyer Everett Sanders told the state board. “We take issue with what has been presented to you.”

State officials say Sanders is misinterpreting the law, and the district’s appeals have been exhausted. They said Claiborne County will not be allowed to again present evidence before the accrediting commission.

Sanders said that Claiborne County Superintendent Elijah Brown and county school board members “have not engaged in any conduct that has been injurious to the education of children of the district.”

“I don’t believe they’ve violated the state’s rules,” Sanders said in an interview Thursday.

Brown said that the state was already investigating when he took office. He noted that the district has cut down the number of standards it doesn’t meet to 10.

“There were standards that hadn’t been kept up like they should have been, but as soon as we got the information, we began to work on them,” Brown said.

Brown said the district can now demonstrate compliance with even more standards, but hasn’t had the chance.

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