School changes called better and worse|[08/12/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 12, 2007

Twenty years after the creation of the Vicksburg Warren School district, Superintendent James Price says Vicksburg and Warren County are better off than they would have been had Vicksburg and Warren County continued to maintain separate districts.

The 9,200-student VWSD – the result of the merger of the Vicksburg Municipal Separate Schools and the Warren County Public Schools – is one of Warren County’s largest employers, with more than 1,500 teachers, staff, bus drivers, custodians and other specialists. This year, the district will operate 14 schools on a $77 million budget.

&#8220In retrospect, had it not been for the foresight of the educational leaders in the community at that time, we might well have ended up like some of the other school districts in the Delta,” said Price, the fifth superintendent to serve since the creation of the VWSD. Those districts he said, have essentially been abandoned by their communities.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

While costs are rising, however, administrative costs are kept in check. A frequent complaint is that schools have &#8220too many chiefs,” but the VWSD administrative costs are less than 3 percent of total spending, well within guidelines.

Grey Ferris, first president of the new school board says that the future of education in Warren County and in Mississippi is in the hands of the legislators and he is not convinced education is a priority for them.

&#8220I am concerned that there is leadership in the state that does not appreciate public education,” Ferris said. &#8220We don’t need to look at our neighbors – we need to look across the country.”

Ferris also said educators deserve better compensation. &#8220When you’re in the schools and you see how hard people work, I wish we could compensate them more.”

In Mississippi, the Legislature has funded teacher raises for six of the past seven years, including a 3 percent raise this year. The state’s base pay ranges from $30,900 for a starting teacher with minimal qualifications and ranges to $56,930 for a teacher with 25 years’ experience and the highest qualifications. The VWSD also provides a local supplement of about $1,500 per teacher.

The figures are still among the nation’s lowest, so Ferris isn’t impressed.

&#8220How can we argue about funding at the lowest level in the nation?” he said. &#8220Unless we are more interested, we’re not going to be able to solve the problems in this state.”

On the topic of interest, Kermit Harness, principal of Vicksburg High School during the consolidation era and an educator with nearly 40 years of experience says that money isn’t the sole issue – it’s people.

&#8220Many of your really seasoned, loyal teachers and administrators have reached that retirement age,” and are not being replaced. Lynn Baker, a graduate of H.V. Cooper High School and educator for nearly 40 years, agrees.

&#8220I think what’s facing the Vicksburg Warren District is facing schools everywhere. People are not going into education,” said Baker, who is starting her second year as headmaster of Porters Chapel Academy.

Harness, who is teaching now at the community college level, said he noted the trend before he retired from the VWSD.

Former Vicksburg Municipal Separate School District Superintendent Jim Stirgus, a self-described &#8220old school” educator with 30 years’ experience, also agrees that teachers are less dedicated and, further, that discipline is lacking.

&#8220Teachers were absolutely dedicated to the proposition of helping our students be prepared in life,” said Stirgus. Dedicated educators are hard to come by today, he said.

Now, he says, some teachers view their role as just another job and aren’t willing to tolerate inconveniences such as long hours when they could potentially make more doing something else.

And Stirgus said, in his day, discipline was strict and swift, but fair.

Now he said, it seems as though both parents and schools are unable to teach kids the difference between right and wrong.

&#8220If there are teachers who can’t discipline kids, then they should not be there,” he said.

But, Stirgus also admits that times were different than when he started his career in education. Teachers and staff often had the blessing of parents to do whatever was needed to keep kids in line, and no one complained without trying to help, he said. Jan Daigre, now a VWSD trustee, said there is a different teacher-student-parent dynamic. &#8220The relationship between parents and schools was much better.” Parents and students are operating under a different mindset, she says – a mindset of disrespect and defiance. And, &#8220it’s not the teacher’s responsibility to cure it,” she said.

The change, Price said, has the district looking all the time at new structures, new programs, new approaches to address changing times.

For tough discipline cases, the district works closely with Warren County Youth Court. For students challenged in other ways, myriad individualized programs are now offered at Grove Street school. The district is also building on vocational education programs begun six or seven years ago in order to provide students the chance to learn skills for good-paying jobs if they have no interest or potential for college.

Structurally, at the time of the merger the new board had considered &#8220one, two and three high schools,” said Larry Holman, a member of the first VWSD board.

The idea of consolidating Warren County’s two public high schools into one was discussed as recently as January, but doesn’t appeal to some veteran educators.

&#8220There’s pros and cons,” to the idea said Peter Pikul who was principal at Warren Junior High School in 1988, when students and teachers were moved around after the administrations of the two systems were combined.

Price has put the idea forward as a way to take race off the table as a lingering tension and foster a one-community, one-school atmosphere.

&#8220I would like to see one high school,” said Daigre. &#8220I think we would be a powerhouse in sports and band, because we’ll all be under one house.” But the creation of a single school would wipe out decades of traditions. And less talented musicians or athletes might be shut out if there was one band and one team.

&#8220You would spend some years soothing hard feelings after eliminating one school,” Pikul said.