Poor conditions of schools could spur more consolidation debate

schoolJACKSON — Reports of decrepit buildings, illiterate high school students and bloated employee rolls could fuel another round of school district consolidation by the Mississippi Legislature.

Bob Strebeck, who runs the Leflore County system since the state took control last year, told Senate Education Committee members yesterday that conditions in the 2,800-student system are the worst he’s seen in six districts where he’s been conservator.

Strebeck said former administrators hired twice as many teachers as needed and gave employees raises just before the state took over.

“There was absolutely no academic accountability, there was no financial planning and the school district needs to be restructured,” he told the committee.

Strebeck hasn’t said how many employees he plans to lay off at the end of their contracts this spring, but said the 266 teachers and 37 central office employees are both at least twice as many as he needs. The system has 541 employees overall.

“Each day I am learning something about a new employee I didn’t even know I had,” Strebeck said.

Claiborne County conservator Jayne Sargent wasn’t there. But in a written report from November, the former superintendent of Jackson schools also found too many employees, neglected buildings, seniors who haven’t passed state graduation tests, and failure to check employee backgrounds. She reported that 14 of 139 employees had criminal backgrounds, including four felons. She said a $10,000 theft using a district fuel card was never resolved and that hiring was “often connected to politics rather than needs of students.”

State officials said an audit found that Leflore was violating at least 22 state standards, and said a takeover was also in order because all of the district’s schools posted failing grades in the 2012-2013 school year. There have also been allegations of testing irregularities and nepotism in hiring.

Gov. Phil Bryant cleared the way for the state Department of Education to seize control of the Leflore district on Sept. 17, deposing the superintendent and school board. But the district sued to block the state’s move, staving it off until they lost a state Supreme Court decision on Oct. 28. During that time, Strebeck said the board gave raises to a “select few” employees.

The state also took over Claiborne County on Sept. 17. It tried to block the takeover in court but lost. In Claiborne County, the state says school board members try to micromanage the elected superintendent.

In the Leflore district, 66 seniors at the two high schools haven’t passed all four state graduation tests. Sargent wrote that in November, 43 of 96 seniors had flunked at least one graduation test.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said that mismanagement and academic failure are unacceptable.

“We want every child to have an opportunity for an education and they weren’t being given that in Leflore County,” he said.

One solution to such struggles appears to be more school district consolidations. After combining districts in Bolivar, Clay, Oktibbeha and Sunflower counties over the past four years, Republican lawmakers have proposed numerous bills to merge many more of the state’s 151 school districts this year.

Tollison himself has filed seven bills, including ones to merge Claiborne and Jefferson counties and to merge Leflore County and Greenwood.

He also wants to merge Carroll County, Winona and Montgomery County; Perry County and Richton; Kemper and Noxubee counties; Holmes County and Durant; and Amite and Wilkinson counties.

Tollison said he was following recommendations of a consolidation report commissioned by former Gov. Haley Barbour, and said such districts would spend more on instruction and be easier for state officials to monitor. He also touted potential benefits from consolidated high schools.

Greenwood Superintendent Montrell Greene, though, wasn’t eager to merge with Leflore County.

“The county appears to have numerous challenges that cannot be addressed in immediate fashion,” said Greene, who attended yesterday’s meeting.

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