John "Mac" Curlee at board meeting
John “Mac” Curlee, interim superintendent of the Coahoma County School District, presents administrative assistant award at the April 10 school board meeting.


CLARKSDALE – After the termination of the former superintendent midway through the semester, new leadership in the Coahoma County School District is taking the district by the reins and implementing changes designed to create a positive environment that not only satisfies the school board, but keeps teachers and parents happy, too.

Not withstanding the ongoing legal battle of former leader Xandra Brooks-Keys to get her job back, the district, at a regular monthly board meeting on Tuesday, along with its new school leader John “Mac” Curlee, took action on several fronts to keep the schools moving forward.

The productivity under the interim superintendent in such a short amount of time — increasing salaries for certified and classified staff, buying two new school buses from the buses and buildings fund, creating an alternative school and adding a hint of new paint inside of the hallways at the schools — has delighted Patrick Campbell, school board president.

For FY18, the local supplement for certified staff will increase to $2500 from the former $1100, whereas classified staff –school employees that don’t need certification or licensure to be qualified for the job – and principals will receive a five percent increase in their salary.

“Mr. President, I don’t know if you know this or not, but the first set of people on their feet was the principals,” said Curlee at the meeting. “I think they recognize how much that’s going to help them as far as recruiting the teachers, and I want to express my appreciation to the board on your action taken tonight.”

Across the country, teachers are fleeing schools and walking out over pay issues. In Oklahoma, in a survey of why teachers are leaving, 80 percent said they left because of money.

Giving teachers more money has also been an issue in Mississippi.

Beginning teacher salaries here, with three years or less of experience is a little over $39,000, according to FY16 data from the Mississippi Department of Education. An average teacher salary is around $41,000.

At $44,872, beginning teacher salaries in New Jersey top all states while New York, at $69,118, ranks number one for average teacher salary, reported by the National Education Association.

Being able to increase salaries in Coahoma County allows the district to become more competitive with other districts while curtailing long term substitutes, said Campbell. It also allows them to retain qualified staff while attracting highly qualified individuals, he added.

In a call with Mississippi Today, Campbell mentioned that there was no extra funding to increase the local supplement and that the funds used were already in their budget.

Mildrica Cannon and Friars Point Elementary principal Latasha Turner
Mildrica Cannon (left) receives her Teacher of The Year award from Latasha Turner,  principal at Friars Point Elementary, at the Coahoma County School District  monthly school board meeting on Tuesday, May 8 at Lyon Elementary School.

“It feels great to know that I, as well as other hard workers in the district will be getting an increase in pay,” said Friars Point Elementary teacher of the year, Mildrica Cannon. “With all of the requirements from the national and state education laws demanding so much from educators, the increase in pay will make the idea of working hard a lot better.”

Last week, school officials, parents, teachers, and principals met in Lyon Elementary School’s library. The room was packed — every seat filled, people standing up, and others waiting outside in the hallway.

This was one of the first steps in keeping the community engaged with what’s going on, said Campbell.

Dave Houston, owner of Dooney’s Barbershop and a parent in the district, said he wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but he likes the idea of having the board meetings at the respective schools.

“Parents, especially at Lyon (Elementary School) always show up. They have a lot of support and I think they should continue to have the meetings at the school,” said Houston. “A more hands on approach with parents as far as principals and teachers can make a difference, too.”

Celebration and cheers were in order — with no complaints, except for some noting that “they couldn’t hear all the way in the back,” said Campbell — as district officials  highlighted the achievements of students scoring high on the ACT, congratulated the Coahoma County Jr/Sr High School for winning the 2A state basketball championship for a second-straight year and commended teachers and parents for a job well done.

Curlee emphasized how important it is to have effective communication between school officials and the parents  because it “defines us.”

“It defines us individually and it defines us as far as a school district. … Our communication defines who we are,” said Curlee.

“And if we don’t communicate effectively with our staff and our employees, if we don’t communicate effectively with our students, if we don’t communicate effectively with our parents, we’re not gonna be very successful as far as anything that we do.”

The critical component though is what’s being communicated and how its being communicated, he added.

At the meeting, the board:

•Approved housing the alternative school on the senior wing at the high school

•Approved installing door entry systems at the schools

•Accepted student teachers from Mississippi State University

•Agreed to conduct a self audit for accreditation standards and a curriculum audit of the district

“This should’ve been done all along. It could’ve been done all along,” said Campbell. “Did you see the enthusiasm (at the meeting)? Teachers and parents and everybody was happy and especially for that alternative school. … The district now has someone who already has experience and knows education business, you know?” 

Interim superintendent John “Mac” Curlee, (left to right) sits at the end of the table alongside the Board of Trustees of the Coahoma County School District at their regualar monthly meeting on May 8 in the library at Lyon Elementary School.

The support from school officials and the Coahoma community has made an early impression on Curlee.

“They’ve been very courteous. They’ve been very professional. Their hospitality has just been indescribable as far as someone coming in new like I’ve done, and so I’m just so grateful for that,” he continued.

Houston said he didn’t know who Curlee was, but he said he felt the district needs new leadership.

With her first year of teaching under her belt, Cannon mentioned that she is positive the district is moving in the right direction.

Although he has been conservator in the Aberdeen and Tate County schools, Curlee is no stranger to the Mississippi Delta region. He attended Delta State University, did student teaching at the old Clarksdale High School located across from Oakhurst Intermediate Academy, and lived in Marks in the early ’60s when his father was principal at the former Marks Attendance Center, he said.

Curlee’s contract expires June 30, but Campbell hopes to keep him for at least a year, he said.

According to a handout, the district’s goals include:

•Achieving a “C” accountability rating by the end of 2019 and a “B” by 2020 with students showing growth, scoring proficient or above on the state test

•Attracting, retaining, and training the “highest qualified” educators

•Providing safe and secure facilities

•Developing and sustaining effective and efficient use of all resources to improve student achievement and fiscal responsibility.

Audience members at the meeting gave Curlee praises when he stressed the importance of requiring all students to take the ACT, beginning in ninth grade, for the next school year.

“If they’re an athlete or in the band or in choral music, they’re not gonna sing the first note, we’re not gonna break from the first huddle, or we’re not gonna take the first step in whatever until we are registered for that ACT,” said Curlee.

“I’m just trying to know the school district better than the day before and in doing so, trying to do what I can in the time that I have to move the needle as far as student achievement in the district and just become more familiar,” said Curlee.

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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.