Conservatorship Meeting

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 26, 2010

North Panola crowd hears of ‘exit strategy’ for district

By Jason C. Mattox

Over 150 people were on hand Monday night to hear an update on the North Panola School District’s conservatorship from Mississippi Superintendent of Education Dr. Tom Burnham.

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Burnham found himself in familiar territory as he was state Superintendent in 1995-96 when North Panola was previously placed in conservatorship. He replaced Dr. Hank Bounds in late 2009 when Bounds was named Commission of Higher Education.

“I want you to all know that this is not a job I take lightly,” he said. “When the people of this community called my office to ask questions, I wanted to come down here to give you an update.”

Burnham said the biggest concern raised was the decline in test scores from 2008 to 2009.

“It is not fair to compare this year’s scores to last year’s because you were different tests,” he said. “You are taking the MCT2 test now, where you used to take the MCT. There won’t be a fair basis of comparison until next year’s test results are available.”

Burnham told the crowd that they would soon see more technical education.

“There are a lot of students who have no intention of moving on to college, and we need to make sure that we provide them with the skills to find a good job,” he said. “I have always been a big believer in technical education, and that has not changed.”

Burnham also mentioned the “exit strategy” for North Panola to leave conservatorship saying he sees the state remaining in place for “at least another year or two.”

“There are three items on that list that you can go ahead and mark off because they are dealing with financial issues,” he said. “Financially, this district is in good shape.”

Burnham said conservator Bob Strebeck had copies of the exit strategy and would begin implementation at the right time.

“We don’t want to be here any longer than we have to be,” he said. “But we are not going to simply pull out and declare victory.”

Former North Panola teacher Julius Harris asked what the department of education could do to assist with standardized testing like the ACT.

“I know there are other schools that offer an ACT prep class,” Harris said.

Burnham said there were educators in the district and employees with MDE who are willing to assist with ACT prep.

North Panola School District Board of Trustees President Rosa Wilson asked the superintendent to explain the role of the board under conservatorship.

“The board really has no more power than the conservator allows,” he said. “We could dissolve the board, but have chosen not to. The board has a role in the area of information.”

Wilson then pointed out that the board only recently began holding regular meetings again after nearly six months off.

“We have not been given a board packet or any information, and we are paying that man $196,000 a year, and the average household income in this district might be $45,000,” she said. “We have to pay that money back folks. There’s a lot of things that you say that we should have been doing that we have not been doing under conservatorship.”

“My answer to that is going to sound a little defensive, but if the board had been doing what the board should have been doing, we wouldn’t be here tonight.”

NP board Vice-president Tracy Thompson asked how the district should bridge the gap between the community and the district.

“We all want to do what is the best for the children,” she said. “But what can we do to bridge the gap?”

Burnham said he believe the district needs to hold more forums and community meetings for input.

“The quickest way to get fragmented is to not find common ground,” he said. “Focus on the children. Focus on the things you can agree on and then move on to the areas of conflict.

“Talk about the children, don’t talk about the money. Talk about the things that impact the children,” Burnham said.

Burnham told those in attendance that he was willing to hold future meetings in the district.

“I like meetings like this,” he said. “They are too big and you can’t get things resolved, but they are very informative.”