/School vote in Jackson hits Greenwood hard

School vote in Jackson hits Greenwood hard

GREENWOOD — On Wednesday, Ericka Wheeler, 22, was honored by Mississippi lawmakers for being the first Mississippi female African American Rhodes Scholar. The same legislators voted minutes later to merge her high school district and another less-performing one. One that Wheeler is still settling into is the consolidation of Greenwood Public Schools and Leflore County Schools. Although the consolidation won’t take place until July 2019, it will take a lot of time and effort to combine the large school districts. The Greenwood school district has 2,846 students and the Leflore County district has 2,405 students. It is rare to combine two large districts. Greenwood Schools received a “D” rating from the state’s educational accountability system in 2013-2014. The most recent data available is for the year 2013. After receiving two consecutive “F”, ratings, the Leflore County School district has been under state supervision since 2013. One of five consolidations approved by the Legislature last week, the supporters of the merger claim that the merging will reduce administrative costs and free up money for education. Opponents argue that the legislation will increase bureaucracy in the existing education plans, which ultimately won’t save the districts any money. Deirdre Maies, chairwoman for the Greenwood Public Schools Board, stated that the consolidation has been made law. She said, “At this moment, it is law. We’ll do everything we can to ensure it goes smoothly.” Personally, however, I believe a decision such as this should be made by local officials and not the state. It is what it is at this stage, and we’ll strive to be a model for consolidation.” Mayes stated that while the Greenwood-Leflore county merger is still three years away, the planning process will be complicated. Nobody knows who will be the superintendent. It is not clear which schools will be closed and which ones will stay open in the county. To create budget plans, financial advisers will need to collaborate with both districts. Long-standing district staffers may lose their jobs as the central offices merge into one. Teachers, principals, and staff contracts will need to be resolved. It will be necessary to arrange transportation plans and facility use plans. The Mississippi Legislature had not consolidated any school districts in 30 years before 2012. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor. Tate Reeves has merged 13 districts, reducing the number of school districts from 152 to just 139. Since 2012, most consolidations have combined smaller districts with bigger ones. Three such traditional consolidations were approved this year: Montgomery County (273 Students) to Winona (1.123 students), Durant (531 Students) to Holmes County (2.898 students), Lumberton (585 Students) to Poplarville (1.927 students) & Lamar County (9.996 students). The majority of these 13 consolidations saw the state Department of Education remove the current superintendents and board members and replace them with new administrators. Reeves stated Thursday that small school districts pay very high salaries to central office employees, which means they have less money for the classroom. “So we’re working towards achieving our goal to get more money into the classroom and less in the district office,” Reeves said. However, the Greenwood-Leflore County consolidation was different in nature according to state and local officials. Senator David Jordan, D. Greenwood, a 33-year-old educator who taught in Greenwood Public Schools 24 years ago, stated that the consolidation was more due to underperforming academics rather than the number of students. Mayes stated that negotiations on the consolidation began last year between state and local officials. She met with representatives from the Senate and House education committees. She advocated for a merger like the 2013 Starkville/Oktibbeha, which would have allowed the two districts to retain some of their school board members and administrators as well as delay the rollout for a reasonable time. The Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated Schools District received one of two Mississippi AP Honor Roll distinctions earlier in the year. The 32-mile journey west from Greenwood to Sunflower County is a completely different story. The legislature voted in 2012 to merge Indianola Drew, Sunflower and Sunflower public schools districts. All three were academically failing. The state reading test, which is required for fourth grade, was failed by 22 percent of the third-graders in the consolidated district. This added fuel to the opposition to consolidation. Jordan stated that consolidation is not the solution. “Yes, schools are performing poorly. If you really want to blame anyone, blame the state legislature. He continued, “Look at the fact that the legislature hasn’t fully funded (the Mississippi Adequate Education Program), but twice in 18 years.” Jordan was not surprised that the Greenwood-Leflore County consolidation came as a surprise to some officials. The House of Representatives approved the bill’s transfer to the conference committee on April 5. It was also discussed the possibility of continuing to study the consolidation during the summer. Three days before the legislature adjourned, on April 18, the conference committee filed conference reports in which the committee put the consolidation back on. On Wednesday, Wheeler, Rhodes Scholar, received a concurrent resolution from the House, in recognition of her accomplishment. Willie Perkins (D-Greenwood) introduced Wheeler to many legislators after she arrived an hour earlier than expected. Perkins reminded her that she was a Greenwood Public School graduate just hours before the vote to consolidate the school district districts. Wheeler stated that she could see Perkins’ concern for the consolidation bill. Wheeler said that Perkins brought her along to the House floor and she was able to tell the legislators’ stances on the consolidation bill by the way he introduced her to them. “I have someone to meet,” Wheeler recalled. “This is Mississippi’s Rhodes Scholar Ericka Wheeler — a Greenwood public school student, I might add!” He repeated the same introductions to Wheeler. Wheeler said that Perkins told her to the consolidation supporters, “You’re basically standing before someone who (went school) there.” “You are about to sign the bill. You now know the potential for that area.” At the end of the day, both houses voted to approve the conference reports and to begin consolidation. Although the consolidation will have a significant impact on the lives of many residents in Leflore County, Greenwood and Greenwood, Mayes stated that the primary focus was and will remain on improving the academic performance in each district. Mayes stated that the main concern of everyone is the education received by their children. We are working to improve our academic achievement. Plans for consolidation are in the making, but we don’t have the time at the moment. This is the main priority at this stage.”