BY JOE B. COATES
The state superintendent of education, Hank Bounds, held a brief meeting to introduce the permanent conservator to stakeholders, teachers and students of the Hazlehurst City School District last Thursday. The district has failed 37 of the 38 criteria to remain under local control, according to Bounds, and has officially been placed under the guidance of the state Department of Education.
Bounds said that a very disturbing part of the entire situation is that the district is carrying a $1.6 million deficit, including $1.2 for salaries and district maintanence, and $400,000 for food services. “Dollars have been misspent, and the focus of the spending has not been on the students. The focus has been on adults,” Bounds noted. He said it will take 2 to 3 years to correct the deficit, meaning 40 positions will be eliminated. Those are split evenly among certified and non-certified staff, most of which have already been arbitrated away.
The most devastating effect has been to the students in the district, Bounds explained. “In many ways, this district has been somewhat of an employment agency for Hazlehurst. The children have not been served properly, and adults have been the main beneficiaries. Under our control, this will cease to continue,” Bounds stated.
The new conservator, Stanley Blackmon, who was most recently the principal at Lanier High School, was publicly introduced to the crowd of close to 200. Blackmon made it clear in the first few sentences of his speech that his focus will be on improving opportunities for students in the district and an overall goal of children learning.
“It may make some adults angry in the district, but I’m not here for them. I am here strictly to give the children the opportunity to be the best they can possibly be,” Blackmon stated.
Bounds noted 13 academic areas in which his office will be directly responsible for improving or directing over the next few months and years. Offering foreign languages, developing an honors program and tapping into local and federal resources to help provide the same opportunities as in higher achieving school districts are among those. Staff members in his office will be assigned to handle each of those areas directly.
“This district is one of the worst managed situations I’ve ever encountered. I refuse to believe, however, that the students in this district aren’t as capable of achieving a high level of learning and success as there are in Tupelo or Hattiesburg or elsewhere. We are going to move as quickly as we can to provide opportunities to help these boys and girls begin reaching those levels,” Bounds stated.
Bounds made it crystal clear to the gathering that the state is in complete control. He advised that the district will be abolished, meaning existing positional leadership will be completely removed, and that Blackmon is the state’s complete and final authority in the operation of the district. That is, at least until significant improvement is made.
Blackmon, who will be assisted by Joe Haynes, the interim conservator, until the end of the first semester of school, will hold community meetings to involve the public in the process. “We all must work together. In the end we will be on how much we have improved the opportunities for our students to learn and achieve,” he said.
Blackmon knows that bumps will be in the road because of changes that will have to be made across the board. Citing the reason as a waste of energy, Blackmon said that he “will not fight the same battles every day,” referring to dealing with adults in the district. “All my energy and focus will be on the boys and girls,” he added.
Bounds encouraged the public and stakeholders in the district to come together and let past differences stay in the past.
“Stop blaming everybody else for these problems, and let’s do our very best for the boys and girls. We desparately need everyone of you here to be part of the solution,” Bounds stated.
State officials will be highly visible in the district to assist with implementing the school improvement plan.
Jean Massey of the Office of Accreditation in the education department, said that the district is short 22 certified teachers for next school year, but that the department is working feverishly to fill those needs. Massey also said that the department will be pursuing as many federal funds as possible to offset the huge deficit the district is facing, while maintaining an optimal level of programs. She added that some of the jobs will be consolidated so that duplication of jobs is eliminated and costs will be saved. Some bus routes may be consolidated, as well, she added.
Eventually, the leadership of the district will be rebuilt, and the state presence will no longer be necessary. That could be in as little as two years, but as many as five, Bounds said.
The next meeting of the district, in which Blackmon will be leading, was scheduled for Monday morning at ten o’clock.