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State moving toward takeover of Hazlehurst schools

The state Board of Education voted Friday to clear the way for a state takeover of the Hazlehurst Municipal School District, which is struggling with academic and financial problems.

The next step is for Gov. Haley Barbour to declare a state of emergency for the district, then a conservator can be appointed.

Officials said that process generally moves quickly.

“Someone has to get on the ground before the wheels completely fall off,” said state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds.

The state Commission on School Accreditation lowered the district’s accreditation status Thursday from advised to probationary, based on the state’s findings from the district. That led the way to Friday’s state board vote.

The Department of Education said Hazlehurst is on its way to a $1 million deficit by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. Right now, district spending outstrips revenue by about $750,000.

Suzanne Smith, the district’s state-appointed financial adviser, said spending is out of control. For the past two to three years, Hazlehurst has had $2,000-$3,000 a month in overdraft fees. Also, more than $3 million in 16th Section interest money has been moved to pay salaries, which is against state law.

Officials said up to 15 professional and nonprofessional staff could be laid off.

The district of about 1,700 students also is faring poorly academically. All three of the district’s schools are rated Level 2, or underperforming, based on last year’s state tests.

Jean Massey, who oversees the Department of Education’s Office of Accreditation, said recent visits to the district revealed it met only two of the state’s 37 accreditation standards.

Hazlehurst board President David Huntington said he welcomes the state’s help and will fully cooperate.

“I don’t disagree with any of the findings of the commission,” Huntington said.

Two other districts in the state — Jefferson Davis County and North Panola — are under state control.