Tunica County School District conservator Margie Pulley and Tunica Elementary Principal Eva O'Neil pose in front of a sign at the elementary school. Pulley implemented a district-wide focus on teaching and learning when she took over. Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

TUNICA – Two years into a state takeover, the Tunica County School District has regained its accreditation after correcting issues involving federal regulations and its instructional program.

The Commission on School Accreditation officially approved the district’s upgraded status at its meeting Tuesday.

The Board of Trustees of the Tunica County School District announced last week that the commission had approved the recommendation to upgrade their status from probation to accredited.

The commission determines each public school district’s accreditation status every fall. There are three options:

• Accredited — an accredited district is completely compliant with the state accreditation policies and standards.

• Probation — Districts with probation status are not 100 percent compliant, and are required to develop a corrective action plan with a specific timeline to fix their issues.

• Withdrawn — If a district does not adequately complete the actions required on the corrective action plan, the accreditation is “withdrawn.” The commission also can withdraw the accreditation of any district that has been taken over by the state.

At the Tunica school board meeting on Oct. 10, interim superintendent Margie Pulley announced that the commission approved the recommendation to upgrade the district’s accreditation status from probation to accredited for the 2017-2018 school year. The announcement prompted raucous applause from the audience.

“This is a monumental task,” Pulley said. “That means we’ve gone from withdrawn — no accreditation — back to accreditation. So we’ve done well.”

The district’s accreditation was initially withdrawn in 2015 when it was taken over by the state. Despite regaining its accreditation, the district remains designated a District of Transformation with oversight by the state Department of Education.

In July 2015, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency which allowed the state to take over the district and install Pulley as conservator. Lawmakers passed a bill during the 2017 legislative session that revamped the state takeover model to focus more on student achievement and changed the terminology for the person in charge of a district following a takeover from “conservator” to “interim superintendent.” The state Department of Education appoints the interim superintendent.

Under the new law, when the governor declares a state of emergency in a school district, it is taken over by the state and becomes a District of Transformation. Although the district’s accreditation status was upgraded, Tunica County Schools will remain under state takeover with an interim superintendent until it earns an accountability grade of C or higher for five consecutive years.

Official accountability scores for the 2017-18 school year will be released Thursday at the State Board of Education meeting.

Earlier this year, the state department of Education recognized Tunica for improving achievement of the district’s lowest-performing students during its “Celebration of Excellence” tour.

Last month the Board of Education announced Pulley was selected to serve as interim superintendent of Jackson Public Schools if the governor declares a state of emergency in the district. That step was recommended by both the accreditation commission and the state Board of Education.

Board chair Rosemary Aultman announced at the Sept. 14 meeting that Pulley and the board worked out a contract and would serve as the new interim superintendent in the event that the district was taken over by the state.

Aultman also said Pulley would be replaced by Mac Curlee, former conservator of the Aberdeen School District. MDE selects the superintendent for the district as long as it remains a District of Transformation. Aberdeen was taken over by the state in 2012 and released this year.

Curlee is currently involved in a federal lawsuit filed by a former employee who alleged Curlee terminated his position in an act of racial discrimination and retaliation. The case has yet to be resolved.

The commission chose not to address the Jackson Public School District’s accreditation status on Tuesday, so JPS remains in probation.

At the Tunica County school board meeting, Pulley chose not to answer any questions regarding Jackson Public Schools.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.