Mississippi Board of Ed Members Call School Takeover Law Too Broad

At least 30 Mississippi schools are on the last year of their probation period, which means that come next fall they could lose their entire staff, from instructors to custodians, if they don't improve from the F grade they earned in the previous 2 years. These corrective actions are required under a law passed by the legislature in 2010 called the "new start" law.

According to Ruth Ingram of the Clarion Ledger, the state will take over any school graded F three years in a row and replace the staff with employees selected by state regulators themselves. Larry Drawdy, who is the head of school conservatorship, announced as much to the members of the Mississippi Board of Education last week.

The law says that the schools must earn at least a C to avoid a mandatory takeover — news not very welcome to board members who hoped that whether a school is taken over or not would be left to their discretion.

Department of Education officials, however, wanted such takeovers to be optional on its part. The law targets districts that aren't failing but have one or more schools that chronically underperform.

But education officials say the law would be nearly impossible to enforce if that many schools went into conservatorship at one time. This year, Drawdy said, 92 schools are rated F because they are academically failing their students. It's the second year in a row for 50 of them.

"Next year, we could have 30-plus in conservatorship," Drawdy said. "We cannot do the new start law as written. You'd have to fire everybody in the school and then replace them. You can't do that."

Dawdry called the law as written "wrong-headed" and askde lawmakers to change the part that required the firing of all staff, even those who have no impact on student performance. At the same time, all the board members reiterated their commitment not to let failing schools coast without showing improvement. The board wanted to make it clear that it did not oppose the take-over provision entirely, but simply thought that the law made it too broad to be useful.

Mississippi already has five districts under conservatorship, including three that have progressed enough to be returned to local control next July. Today, the state board is expected to place three more failing districts — Claiborne County, Leflore County and Yazoo City — under conservatorship.

In a takeover, department officials remove current superintendents and school boards. Elected superintendents are usually permanently changed to appointed posts in districts that are taken over. School board members at the time of a takeover are barred from ever serving again after a district is returned to local control.

They also must find someone willing to be the district's conservator — often, a retired education administrator or superintendent.

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