PRC School Board to consider audit Monday

Published 1:36 am Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Pearl River Co. school board issued a public notice on Thursday, saying the board intends to meet on Monday evening at 6 in the boardroom here to consider the recent Mississsippi Department of Education’s Pearl River Co. school district audit.

The audit, or evaluation, outlined stinging conclusions that said the school board here was not functioning properly and were out of compliance with three public school accountability standards as promulgated by the state education department.

In short, the audit said the board had overstepped its boundary of authority, and had pushed its way into the bailiwick that law reserves for the superintendent, Dennis E. Penton. The report, in effect, accused the board of meddling in areas that were reserved for decisions by Penton.

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While the evaluation — which was requested by State Supt. of Education Tom Burnham, after written complaints and newspaper articles brought some problems to his attention — highlighted the board’s high profile violations, like not being in compliance with the state’s open meetings law, it did not look favorably either on the administration of Supt. Dennis E. Penton, citing his administration with 20 instances of non-compliance with state standards.

Both sides in what residents here know as a contentious relationship between the board and the superintendent were cited in the highly critical report, and just what the state education department can actually do about rectifying the problems is not clear yet. Just about everything the school board and superintendent do here with regards to the school eventually leaks out to the public in this large close-knit rural community.

The auditors said that the citations for noncompliance will remain an open issue between the state and the school administration and board until they are corrected.

All five board members are elected from districts and answer only to their constituents, although the state education department has some control and authority, too, over school districts because the state funds so much local school activities, and state laws cover what school systems can and cannot do.

And Penton is also elected, and the board in December 2009 found out what that means when they tried to fire him, and their attorney told the board, they could not, because he was an elected official. 

The board then fired its attorney in an executive session, hired another one and he told them the same thing. The incident was covered in the audit.

The notice rleased by the school on Thursday listed only one item on Monday’s agenda: “Consider approving to work on responses to Mississippi Dept. of Education Audit Report.”

The board president, Twila Crabtree, who came on board in Jan. 2010, after defeating Margie Creel in an election, said on Saturday she had no comment on the audit right now.

Monday’s board meeting is open to the public, and the board would have to vote on carrying the discussions into a closed session, which seems unlikely since it was just cited by the audit for overusing closed sessions.

A source close to the boad said they intend to discuss the report in open session and deal with the issues openly.

The audit went back to 2008 and was run through Nov. 2010. Evaluation dates were October 18 to November 12, 2010, when auditors actually on the school grounds conducted interviews and researched records.

In 2008, board members were Jeff Jones, Margie Creel, Byron Stockstill, Sherwin Taylor and Michelle Boyd. In August 2009 Stockstill resigned, and the board appointed Bonnie Sanders.

In Jan. 2010, Crabtree was sworn in after defeating Creel in an election and in January, Jeremy Weir was sworn in after defeating Bonnie Sanders in an election. Penton has been county superintendent of education for 10 years. He is not seeking re-election.

The school board manages the huge Pearl River Co. school district that serves mainly a huge rural area between Picayune and Poplarville. It has three large campuses and 2,300 students.

The report bluntly accused the school board of abusing its power, behaving in an unprofessional and unethical manner, and that school board meetings have become the “talk of the community.”

The auditors said their investigation came after written complaints and newspaper articles brought the situation to the state education department’s attention. The report said that the evaluation began after it was ordered by State Supt. of Education Tom Burnham.

Said the report, “Reportedly, the school board has abused its power, behaved in an unprofessional and unethical manner, and school board meetings have become ‘the talk of the community.’ It was reported that school board members have lost all perspective of their duties and their roles as school board members.”

The report was presented to the school board at its March 10 meeting but nothing was said or discussed by board members concerning it, especially specific allegations. Paula Vanderford, the director of accreditation with MDE, gave a short overview of the report to the board on March 10, but did not detail any of the charges.

The report is now at the district office, is a public document and can be obtained by  any member of the public. An electronic copy of the report via computer is free but a printed hard copy is $38.

The 119-page report is an inch thick and says that its evaluation of the school system showed that the school board consistently violated the state’s open meetings law, that it has overstepped its boundaries that results in an attempt to micro-manage the district, and intrudes into the administrative and management bailiwick that state law reserves for Supt. Dennis E. Penton.

The audit also charged that school board members talk directly to school personnel and bypass the chain of command through Penton.

Complaints are supposed to go to superiors first and then come to the board if not capable of being resolved at a lower level.

The report charged the board with mismanaging the opportunity of entering into a cooperative agreement with Picayune to develop an early headstart at Carriere.

The audit says board minutes do not reflect why they chose not to enter the agreement with the Picayune school system, but district personnel told auditors that the agreement was turned down because the school board felt it “would not have fiscal control of the program.”

In a statement in the introduction, auditors wrote, “A climate of divisiveness and hostility exists in the Pearl River Co. school district that is characterized by constant conflict and distrust between the school board and the administration. Regardless of the cause, this situation has created an unstable and anxious environment for personnel and produced divisiveness in the community.

Most importantly, the tragic consequences of this relationship will deprive the students in this district from receiving the highest level of education that they deserve.”

The auditors suggested a number of remedial alternatives, including requiring the school board members to set in on school board sessions at Long Beach and Pass Christian to observe how other school board members do it.

The Pearl River Co. school board — noted for its long meetings with some executive sessions lasting to 1 a.m., following an hour open meeting — was subjected to detailed analysis by state auditors on its overuse of the executive session and discussions of questionable topics in closed-door sessions.