Swinford wins one, loses two in VWSD meeting Scholastic program to include more students; two top hires denied

Published 12:05 pm Friday, June 1, 2012

Split votes on three proposals considered by trustees of the Vicksburg Warren School District Thursday night handed Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Swinford a victory on one request and defeat on the other two.

At their regular monthly business meeting, board members agreed to double to 160 the enrollment for the Scholastic Academy pilot program for high-achieving seventh- and eighth-graders. The board in March approved the program for 80 students, beginning when school resumes in August.

The school day for those students will be extended by 70 minutes, and four additional teachers will be hired to staff the classrooms.

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Voting in favor were District 1 Trustee and board president Bryan Pratt, District 2 Trustee Zelmarine Murphy and District 5 Trustee Sally Bullard, with nay votes from vice president and District 3 Trustee Jim Stirgus Jr. and Joe Loviza of District 4.

Then, following a nearly one-hour closed session, Swinford was denied her choices to fill two top-level vacancies. The openings came with the retirements of assistant superintendent Debra Hullum and transportation manager David Keen.

Swinford wanted to promote current Vicksburg Junior High School Principal Dr. Michael Winters to be her assistant, and transportation office veteran Fred Barnum to manage the district’s busing.

Voting no on Winters’ promotion were Stirgus, Loviza and Pratt. Stirgus, Loviza and Murphy opposed Barnum’s.

Swinford had no comment and trustees gave no explanation for their votes.

“They’re very important positions,” Swinford said this morning. “I will readvertise and expand the search. That’s what I was appointed to do.”

Loviza, Bullard and Stirgus left the meeting before the decisions were announced, and the public meeting was not reconvened in order to announce the actions taken in executive session.

Instead, Pratt, after speaking privately for about 10 minutes with Murphy, Swinford and board attorney Briggs Hopson III, allowed observers in and reported on the closed session votes.

Earlier, when discussion about filling the positions was moved to executive session, Loviza chastised Swinford for not involving the board in her selection process.

“We have specifically asked the superintendent to let us know who is applying for these main administrative jobs… and we have had at least three that have been brought to the school board in the past year that we had no idea who even applied,” Loviza said. He questioned why the positions were not advertised outside the district and why “more people who have excellent qualifications within our district” were not interviewed.

Swinford rebutted that the positions were advertised as required by state law and district policy, and that 17 individuals had been interviewed for the two positions.

“Everything was done in accordance with (VWSD) policy,” she said. “I am implementing policies that you all gave me to work with.”

About a dozen parents were present for the discussion about Scholastic Academy, which referenced but did not include the specifics of complaints Loviza and other officials had received about the selection process.

Swinford denied attempting to expand the program simply to appease upset parents.

“We had at least 37 students that qualified that did not make the program,” she said, adding a number of applications also were received after the deadline. They might add to the number of eligible students and could provide better data with which to evaluate the pilot, she said.

Bullard called the program “a huge opportunity” that should be available to every qualified student who wants to take advantage of it.

“Why are we turning children down that need it? That want it?” she said. “All this is going to do is increase our AP kids at the high school.”

After the meeting, Stirgus said he supports the program and its goals but is concerned about hiring additional teachers.

“This is a pilot program,” he said. “If it does not succeed, where are the additional teachers going to go?”

Scholastic Academy will use project-based, nontraditional methods of teaching the four core subject areas — math, English, social studies and science — in 75-minute classes, said Paula Johnson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Regular junior high periods run about 55 minutes.

Extension of the school day for those students will allow them to also take two electives, she said.

In other business, trustees voted without comment to increase pay scales for all employees in the district. Swinford said salary schedules will be bumped 2 to 3 percent, about the equivalent of an average step raise.