The remarks of a concerned citizen drew applause from the audience but no comment at all from the Hazlehurst School Board during last week’s meeting.
Businessman and alderman Dr. Richard B. Akin was on the agenda for last Tuesday evening’s meeting. He addressed several financial, personnel, and student test performance issues in a short succinct speech that expressed his dissatisfaction with the way the Hazlehurst City School District is run.
“I come to you only concerned about these children who I feel are being neglected by this board,” said Akin, who has served for 17 years in local government. “Our taxes are at best being poorly used.”
Akin pointed out that the Hazlehurst schools have the potential of being in the bottom five in the state of Mississippi in several categories. “When I graduated from the Hazlehurst schools in 1969, we were one of the top schools in the state, and I was more than prepared in all phases of my education for college and professional school,” Akin said.
He cited reports from the Mississippi Department of Education that ranked Hazlehurst Middle School at the very bottom of 140 middle schools in the state and ranked Hazlehurst High School 187th of 188 high schools.
The budget for Hazlehurst schools is greater than larger districts, Akin reported. In 2005, with 1805 students enrolled, $633,555 was spent for general administration in the Hazlehurst School District, while $362,805 was spent on average in the state in 2005. Capital expenditures in Hazlehurst were $186,890 compared to the state average of $1,028,850.
“In other words, most of our money is being spent on administrative functions, and not on needed improvements in the schools,” Akin told the board. “As a taxpayer, this is insulting. You should be ashamed. Who is to blame for this? Who do you blame? The children? Their parents? Staff? No, the fault – the blame – lies at the feet of this school board. Frankly, I don’t know how any of you sleep at night.”
Examples of the school board’s settling “for nothing but mediocrity and pettiness” include the recent hiring of a superintendent and the demise of the Heritage House program, according to Akin.
“This board spent $12,500 to hire a consulting group for their recommendations of qualified individuals to represent this district,” said Akin. After their first choice decided not to accept their offer, the board decided to hire a candidate who was “one of those not recommended due to his inability to be bonded because of prior financial irregularities. The State Auditor even asked you not to hire him,” said Akin. “Why would you possibly want to do so? One of the real problems of this board is your reputation for making decisions which benefit each of you personally. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but most people think that where there is smoke there is fire.” Akin went on to add, “Also, let me ask on behalf of the taxpayers of Hazlehurst, will the three who voted for him repay the $12,500 in consulting fees now that you have chosen to ignore their recommendations?”
Regarding the Heritage House and 21st Century grant, Akin remarked, “Let’s be real – the programs which were being run out of Heritage House are being recognized across the country as a light in the dark – a wonderful program which you effectively killed. Why is that? I’ll tell you why. Local and board politics, race, and lack of trust have been allowed to keep vital and necessary services from our children. The children you are sworn to care about are, once again, victims of your ineffectiveness and pettiness. Why can’t you seem to work for the benefit of our children, when others in the community are hungry to help, and have demonstrated effectiveness in doing so?” Akin also asked the board to give an accounting of the money which was not spent on the program.
“Why can’t this district meet its potential?” Akin asked. “I know many, many quality people who work here, and who want only the best for our community’s children. They want to see improvement and are willing to work to see it happen. But it starts at the top… You must set an example by making legal, ethical, informed, and, I would add, righteous decisions.”
Akin added a caution against hiring relatives and settling for mediocrity when hiring staff.
“Hire people who are qualified, and let them run the school,” Akin advised. “If they fail, FIRE them. But them them run it without interference.”
Akin concluded with, “God says we’re to love one another. Love these kids like they were your own. Demand excellence and nothing less, even of yourselves. We will all benefit from that.”
When Akin finished speaking, the school board moved on to the next item on the agenda without comment.
The regular monthly meeting of the Hazlehurst school board got off to a rocky start with a disagreement over the agenda. Rev. Martin Washington requested that all personnel items be deleted from the agenda, but that request didn’t pass and the agenda was adopted with minor changes.
The financial statements and claims were approved on a 3-1 vote with Washington voting nay. Board member David Huntington was absent.
The board voted to retain most of the present administrators for the next school year, except for high school principal James Holloway. The motion to retain Holloway failed on a 3-1 vote, with Dr. Bettie McDaniel, Rev. Wyatt Lewis, and Washington voting nay and Jesse Jones voting in favor.
Administrators hired for the next year on a unanimous vote are Marvin Davis, middle school principal; Dr. Billy Brown, elementary school principal; Janie Ashley, curriculum/testing, professional development and ELL; deputy principals Dr. Garrick Shelton, Camella Johnson, and Brendshay Roby; and Kyseta Armstrong, federal programs and special education director.
The motion to approve Jay Norals as deputy superintendent, transportation director, maintenance director, athletic director and alternative school director for the next school year failed on a 3-1 vote, with McDaniels, Washington, and Lewis voting nay and Jones in favor. Lewis remarked that this was too many positions for one person to be effective, and the matter should be tabled and reassessed. McDaniel said she believed the board should vote the matter up or down, not assess and make recommendations.
BOARD MEMBER ADDED TO BANK ACCOUNTS
After discussing personnel in executive session, the board voted to add school board member Rev. Martin Washington as an authorized signer on the following bank accounts: AP clearing, payroll, and central office activity, during the absence of a superintendent.
The board approved a contract with Patrick E. Lowery and Associates to perform the 2007 fiscal year audit.
The high school student council and yearbook staff will have a basketball fundraiser on March 20 from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
The JROTC will hold fundraisers to support field trips and drill meets through the year, including a donut sale and candy sale. The annual cadet challenge meet will be held on Saturday, March 1, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The Junior Beta Club was authorized to sell pickles and other snacks to pay for a trip to Tupelo for the annual state convention.
The annual staff held a Red and White dance on February 15.
McDaniel questioned the number of fundraisers on the consent agenda, and a member of the audience remarked that the board should take a look at the amount of money in the activity fund to see why the fundraisers were necessary.
Lakecia Mapps was hired as janitorial substistute.
Substitute cafeteria workers were hired: Marilyn Bailey, Shellie Jenkins, Lakecia Mapps, and Tracey Dixon.
Elizabeth Fleming resigned as English instructor. Elaine Daniels was hired as English instructor.
Monica C. Richardson and Brandy Chambers resigned.
Patryce Porter was released from contract as counselor at HMS.
A request for cars for the school resource officers was tabled, as was a request to purchase three trailers for the relocation of the health services program and alternative school program. The board also tabled a request to use monies from the retired bond for the purchase of five new school buses and facility renovations within the district.
Personnel was discussed again in executive session before the board adjourned. The Hazlehurst School Board regularly meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at the district office.