- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The state Board of Education on Wednesday asked Gov. Phil Bryant to declare a state of emergency in the Tunica County school district, clearing the way for the state Department of Education to take over.

The board issued its request after receiving the same recommendation from the state Accreditation Commission earlier in the day.

Both panels rejected requests from Tunica County administrators for time to reform, after Superintendent Stephen Chandler resigned last week.

If Bryant declares an emergency, the state would appoint a conservator to run the district, deposing the school board and interim superintendent.

“If a declaration of emergency is warranted, he will not hesitate to act to protect the educational future of the children of the Tunica County school district,” spokeswoman Nicole Webb said.

The state Department of Education began investigating the district after receiving complaints and found that Tunica County is violating 22 of 31 state accrediting standards. Officials were particularly critical of the district’s special education program, as well as Chandler and some school board members. Divisions between a three-member majority and a two-member minority of the school board were plainly on display Wednesday as board members gave different explanations for their actions to the state Board of Education.

The state cited many other problems, saying the district was breaking federal and state laws and that it was time to curtail a lawless “fiefdom.” For example, the state criticized Chandler for never reporting an alleged rape at Rosa Fort High School in 2014. Last month, personal student data, including health and discipline records, were posted openly on the district’s website.

State accreditation director Paula Vanderford said the state audited 87 special education files, finding that boilerplate plans were copied for various students without being individualized, and that many were not updated from year to year. Special education students who are homebound were only getting three days of services each year and not 36.

After the state sent out findings, the district used an “assembly line” process that resulted in what officials called worse individual plans than before.

“The district actually made some of their problems worse while trying to make their problems better,” said state Chief School Improvement Officer Pat Ross.

District leaders asked for 60 to 90 days to fix problems. Lawyer Regina Quinn May said Tunica County struggled under a previous state takeover from 1997 to 2002.

“What this district is asking is that this board and this district and this community be given a chance to address these issues,” May said.

If the state takes over, Tunica County would change from an elected to appointed superintendent when it returns to local control, and current board members would be barred from serving again.

Lee Childress, the Corinth superintendent who chairs the Accreditation Commission, said he wasn’t convinced that more time would do any good.

“These are issues that I think the commission believes have been existing for a long period of time and there have been no meaningful efforts to correct them,” Childress said.

If Bryant declares an emergency, the state will name Margie Pulley, most recently conservator in Oktibbeha County, as conservator in Tunica County. Oktibbeha County was merged into the Starkville school district on July 1.

Ross said Pulley would have the power to break contracts with employees and make personnel changes for the coming school year if needed.

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Online: Accreditation report on Tunica County school district: https://bit.ly/1KPAYgh

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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