Supervisors told community must step up to reform local schools.
Coahoma County Supervisors were told this week Clarksdale and Coahoma County must improve their schools or see them face takeover by the state.
Dr. Will Smith, Coahoma County native and current principal with the Utica School District, said both Clarksdale Municipal School District and Coahoma County School District must make changes if they want to avoid the Mississippi Department of Education sending in a conservator to right both school systems. Both Clarksdale and Coahoma school districts received F’s in the MDE School Accountability Rating released earlier this fall.
“I am a product of Coahoma County schools and for years I have watched them become something less than their best,” said Smith. “I am here to increase awareness that a takeover is a possibility.”
Smith helped take Utica schools from an F to a B on state accountability ratings. He said the process wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight.
Smith pointed out both Clarksdale and Coahoma County schools have been rated F for two years in a row, a key indicator for the state to step in, take control of the district and send in a conservator tasked with improving the districts.
“The way it works is they come in, terminate your superintendents and dissolve your school board,” said Smith. “The conservator then makes those hard choices and decisions to get those schools to a C rating. Schools must maintain a C rating for five consecutive years to come out from under conservatorship.”
He pointed out Clarksdale schools were actually targeted for state takeover last year, but MDE decided not to act.
Smith offered two solutions: Community involvement and consolidation.
“Jackson public schools avoided takeover by the state when the community decided they wanted to make those changes and not let the state do it,” said Smith. “They held a series of community involvement meeting, the school board voluntarily dissolved and they formed a coalition to oversee the changes that needed to be made.”
Smith said consolidation of city and county schools has many advantages and could help stave off a take-over.
“Consolidation not only saves money and puts more money back into the classroom, but it proves to the state you are serious about wanting change,” said Smith. “You aren’t paying for two superintendents, two directors of federal program and two athletic directors. Why not share services?
Smith pointed out many teachers in both the city and county districts are not certified. He said attracting certified teachers to rural or failing school district is difficult.
He said by reducing duplication of services, districts can pay teachers more and attract qualified educators to work for the district.
While consolidation is always a sensitive issue, school mascots, separate athletic program and school identities can be preserved.
Back to state takeover, Smith said one of the first cuts usually made by a conservator is athletics.
“The goal is to improve academics first and foremost,” said Smith. “The goal is to first make sure kids get an education that allows them to be successful in college or in a career.”
Smith suggested the local community commission be made up of the following stakeholders:
• Mayors of Clarksdale, Coahoma, Jonestown, Lula, Lyon and Friars Point.
• Two members from the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors.
• Representative from each Board of Supervisor’s district.
• Representative from each City of Clarksdale ward.
• Representative from Coahoma Community College.
• CMSD and CCSD school board presidents.
• Chamber of Commerce representative.
Smith said there should also be a sense of urgency. The state typically takes over districts shortly after the New Year and after MDE has reviewed fall test scores and other factors.
Smith suggested the commission meetings be held in October and November and the commission make its recommendation or changes to both the cities and county at the end of November with cities and the county approving those recommendations in December.
He said those recommendations can also be submitted to state legislators.
Board of Supervisors President Paul Pearson said a discussion he had with a supervisor in Tate County led him to believe a state takeover is not the best route.
“The state comes in and says what you spend the money on,” said Pearson. “They also can raise the taxes and you have to do what they say.”
Pearson pointed out the two local districts have roughly 3,000 students and combined budgets of $55 million which factors out to $14,000 per student.
Smith said money is rarely the deciding factor in poor school performance.
“Teachers need to teach, learners need to learn and parents need to be involved,” said Smith. “I’ve gotten 47 churches involved and their pastors and members help keep those kids focused on performing at a high level.”
Dist. 4 Supervisor Johnny Newson said consolidation may not be the best route. He also pointed to traditionally black districts as targets for state takeover and that is not fair. Newson left the room after his comments.
Dist. 2 Supervisor Pat Davis thanked Smith for his insight.
Dist. 5 Supervisor Will Young made the motion to pursue Smith’s recommendations and it was seconded by Dist. 3 Supervisor Derrell Washington. The motion passed with 4-0 with Newson not present.