After complimenting the members of the Yazoo City School Board for their selection of the school district's next superintendent, Deputy State Superintendent Mike Kent of the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) said there have been “quite a bit of complaints, for lack of a better word, telephone calls, letters, notes, etc. that have flowed into the (MDE) Department of Accreditation over the last little while.”
Kent and three other MDE officials from the Department of Accreditation appeared before the school board during the trustees' Monday afternoon meeting. While never giving specifics of the complaints, he said the school board has been accused of micromanagement and “being overly involved in personnel issues.”
Emphasizing the necessity of making decisions with the district's students in mind, Kent said, “Every decision is a kid-related decision.... Make every decision based on the children.”
Staff Officer Ken Stamps of the MDE declined going into details about the information that the MDE had received due to the ongoing investigation, “but you're more than welcome to submit a request to the Office of Reporting, and that office will provide you with the information that we have....”
Trustee Lula Starling asked if there was a large “percentage” of individuals making the complaints or a small percentage.
“A large percentage,” Stamps responded. “Basically, the information that we've been provided in regards to the complaints are based on the board.”
“Were these complaints before April or after April,” asked Vanessa Crowder, who was recently appointed to the board.
Stamps said some of the complaints go back to January 2016.
As the trustees attempted to get more information regarding the charges, Kent said, “The thing that makes the operation of a lay board so difficult, is that the board is only a board when you're in session. And yet the problem is that you go to the grocery store and somebody spots you and says,'You're on the school board and I've got something I need to talk to you about.'
“And the next think you know is you're getting a 30-minute earful about some teacher or some event or something like that. It's very difficult for you to be polite while at the same time explaining that when (you are) in the grocery store, (you're) just (a citizen). (You're) not a board member until (the board) is in session.”
Kent said the public is usually unaware that the appropriate venue to discuss a concern is to write it down, ask to appear before the trustees, and “then you can deal with that complaint in an official capacity.”
Starling said some of the difficulties facing the board are the result of letters to the editor in The Yazoo Herald.
“Some of the confidential information (surrounding the superintendent search) appeared in the Yazoo Herald, then the next week, here we come with a letter from one of the pastors calling the board a hijacked board …,” Starling said. “I think all this is coming from bitterness....”
She later assured the MDE officials present that school board attorney Briggs Hopson “is at our board meetings, and if we stray too far to the left, he always calls us back and says, 'You can't do that.' If we were moving that far (off base), he never bites his tongue. Never. He always lets us know (when we are wrong).”
Kent said that he and the other MDE officials are available to assist in any way.
“If you find yourself in situations where you're being placed in a tough spot politically or otherwise, that's what we're available for,” he said.
Hopson asked if there is anything the school board can do during the investigation of the complaints against the board.
“There's nothing right now,” Stamps said. He later added that reports about the investigation will be made to the school board at a later date.
Hopson later said he suspects that the complaints come not from what is said or done at the school board meetings, but from what's going on between board meetings.
“We need to make sure that we don't have meetings outside the meeting,” he said. “All business needs to be done here in the meeting place and not on the streets.”
Addressing Stamps, Starling said, “When you go back and you narrow these complaints down, then I want you to hear my side of the story.”
Kent reminded the trustees that when an issue relates to personnel, “the board's duties are to approve recommendations or deny that recommendation. (When) the superintendent brings a recommendation forward on personnel, you can approve that person or you can deny that person. If you deny that person, it is the superintendent's responsibility to come back with another recommendation.... You can only hire or deny those people that the superintendent recommends. It is inappropriate for board members to try to influence a hire.
“It is also inappropriate on the dismissal side of things. If the superintendent recommends a termination, you have those two choices: you can uphold it or you can deny it. Be very careful about getting involved in personnel actions. That is the superintendent's responsibility.”