Task force unveils school improvement proposal

Published 3:00 pm Friday, November 21, 2008

A legislative task force has released its proposals aimed at improving Mississippi’s underperforming schools, and holding principals and superintendents more accountable is at the top of the list.

The group spent months meeting with teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders in several districts across the state. The common denominator found in the failing schools was poor leadership, said Mississippi Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds.

The task force has proposed requiring additional training for principals and school board members and a separate certification or license for superintendents. Currently, principals and superintendents all hold an administrator’s license, Bounds said.

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“I can show you districts that look exactly alike,” Bounds said. “One is a high-performing school district and one is a very low-performing school district and the big difference there is leadership.”

The task force was created by the 2008 Legislature to report on underperforming schools and make recommendations for improvement. It’s one of several components in Mississippi’s overall plan to lift its education system from near the bottom of the nation.

Bounds said about 100 schools — roughly 10 percent of schools statewide — are underperforming.

The task force recommendations will be presented to the 2009 Legislature that convenes in January. The group didn’t give an estimate on how much the proposals would cost. But any legislation that calls for additional funds next session will come under scrutiny.

Gov. Haley Barbour has proposed a spending plan for next fiscal year that cuts many agencies’ budget by 2 percent.

The state, like the rest of the nation, is in an economic downturn.

“I think the funding is going to be an issue,” House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson said. “It may be that we have to delay some things, but we need to get the legislation in place. The problem has been around a long time and it’s going to take some time to fix it.”

The group also proposed the creation of a Mississippi Recovery School District to oversee all districts that have been taken over by the state because of poor student achievement or other mismanagement. Mississippi has three districts currently in conservatorship — Jefferson Davis, North Panola, and Hazlehurst.

The recovery district would have its own superintendent to monitor progress. The recovery district also would allow the state to focus on the troubled districts for a longer period of time, Bounds said.

Other task force recommendations included:

— Reporting school information, including student achievement and finances, on the district Web site.

— Auditing each school district every four years.

— Establishing a revolving building fund that schools can borrow against to complete renovation and repair projects.

— Creating a community advisory council for each county.