By STEVEN NALLEY
Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part series on the Oktibbeha County School District’s progress under Jayne Sargent’s conservatorship. This first part focuses on the work Sargent has done in her three-month tenure. The second part focuses on the work ahead for the OCSD and Sargent’s successor, and it will appear in Sunday’s edition.
Jayne Sargent's role in the Oktibbeha County School District's story is nearly finished.
In September, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed a declaration of a state of emergency in the OCSD, authorizing the Mississippi Department of Education to dismiss the OCSD's superintendent and board and install Sargent as conservator. Much work remains for the district to meet accreditation standards, raise test scores and end the conservatorship, Sargent said, but from the start, she was only signed up for the first three months of that process.
"School work is never done," Sargent said. "It just continues. I wish that I could stay, but that was never the arrangement. I really am ready to go home. I love the work, (but) I said to some of the staff earlier that if any conservator doesn't come into a school district with their thoughts on going back home, then they're probably the wrong conservator."
Sargent's tenure as conservator ended Dec. 14, and this tenure has brought more than a few changes to the OCSD, even if the biggest changes may yet lie ahead.
Specifically, Sargent said no employees have been terminated on her watch, and legal regulations ensure those decisions will wait until the end of the academic year, placing that responsibility in the hands of Sargent's successor, Margie Pulley. That does not mean no jobs were left empty, she said, as some faculty and staff have retired or moved to different district jobs.
"(For instance), I have switched out a teacher from East (Oktibbeha County High School) who had rather large classes in a key area and was having significant troubles with discipline," Sargent said. "I am switching that teacher out with another teacher from West (Oktibbeha County High School) who was a very strong teacher and had smaller classes. That will happen when we return (from winter break)."
The biggest and most recent departures, accompanied by shuffling of staff, came at EOCHS and in the OCSD's special education department. On Dec. 4, EOCHS principal Maggie Austin retired, and Sargent replaced her with Ginger Cockrell, who had served as special education case manager.
Special education director Candace Cooper then resigned, and on Dec. 11, Sargent moved Cockrell into Cooper's former position, leaving an opening for a principal at EOCHS. Sargent said another teacher from East Oktibbeha Elementary School also retired.
"One other person has left (EOCES)," Sargent said. "That was not a retirement. That's as much as I can say. I will say I've done the best I could have done at this time because of laws that regulate when non-renewals or terminations can be made or should be made."
Sargent said some accreditation standard violations were rectified not long after she arrived. Key among these were excessive use of executive sessions, which Sargent said she has kept to a minimum to set an example, and safety issues pertaining to plugs, extension cords on floors, locks and doors in need of replacement, cleanliness, and school bus emergency latches.
"All of that has been addressed," Sargent said. "That was a pretty easy fix, to get busy and get it done."
Sargent said academics is a much more persistent issue; a large number of OCSD high school students are still failing subject area tests.
"We just had a retest period this past week, and we employed outside consultants to come in and pull those students aside to really do some intensive preparation for those tests to help the children do better," Sargent said. "The administration of the schools, the teachers at the schools and the parents have to help students understand the severity of the situation and that it's in (the students') interest as well (to improve). I will say when we do extra work for the children, they've been very responsive. I think most of the children are trying to do the right thing. We have just got to refocus and keep the standards set high. Then, I really think this district will be OK."
It may take time and resources to get students to buy into the OCSD's recovery, Sargent said, but several faculty, staff and parents are already buying in. She said she has been happy to receive frequent visits from parents, and she has enjoyed working with the OCSD's employees.
"I've just been overjoyed by the reception of parents. I've had a lot of telephone conferences and visits to the office. Parents have felt an ease talking to me," Sargent said. "(As for employees,) when I've passed professional judgments related to the jobs people do, it's related to the jobs people do for the children. It's not judgment on them as (people). I like everybody. I've been honest and aboveboard with everybody. I've found that when you are that way, people are more receptive to what you have to offer."