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Tunica school district returns to local control Monday, after nearly a decade

After almost a decade under state conservatorship, Tunica County School District will return to local control on July 1. 

The takeover of the schools, which was placed under state control in July 2015, is the longest district takeover in state history. 

Margie Pulley has been at the helm throughout the district’s transformation. She previously served as superintendent of the Greenwood School Board before acting as conservator for the Oktibbeha County School District which merged with Starkville’s school district in 2015. She described the process of turning the Tunica district around as challenging but rewarding. 

“We put our emphasis on teaching and learning,” Pulley told Mississippi Today. “That was the focus of the Tunica County School District. We put emphasis on children, and we put academics and teaching first.”

The district was initially placed into a conservatorship after a slew of failures that state officials at the time said jeopardized the safety, security and educational interests of the children enrolled in the district. 

In addition to years of D and F ratings and low graduation rates, the school was found to be in violation of six of eight accreditation standards, and in violation of federal laws like the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act. 

Today, all schools in the district are C rated or higher, the district’s overall rating is a B, and the district’s graduation rate has grown from 57.3% in 2015 to 88.8% in 2023. 

“Teachers have done an outstanding job, and the students have done an excellent job,” Pulley said. “Students here in Tunica County have proven that they can learn and are good students — we just made sure that they were taught.”

One of the major issues with the district pre-conservatorship was its failures in educating students with disabilities. Pulley pointed to the school’s graduation rate for students with disabilities, which was one of the highest in the state last year. 

The district’s financial situation has also improved, from $5,212,625 cash on hand in 2015 to $23,650,634 in 2023. At the district level, it now has one of the highest per-pupil expenditures rates in the state. In the 2022-23 school year, the district spent $17,737 per student. The state average was $11,738.

Pulley said the money always helps. 

“If you want good results, you have to spend the money to get it,” she said. “We’ve spent money, we think, in the places where there was the greatest need. We’ve got full-time English Language Arts and math interventionists and that makes a difference in instruction. The students get the intervention they need. So, I feel good about the money we’ve spent and putting it in the places that it needs to be placed.” 

The district has also made a number of capital improvements to school facilities and purchased new school buses for every bus route. 

The State Board of Education voted in its June 20 meeting to initiate the return to local control, which it has been preparing the district for since late 2022, when it appointed an advisory board that will serve as voting members of the district’s school board beginning on July 1. The new superintendent, selected by what will soon be the school board, will also be announced and sworn in on July 1.

Because school board members are elected officials, they will serve staggered terms with one election in 2025 and every year thereafter until all seats have been voted in. 

At nine years, the state takeover of Tunica County schools is the longest since the state began conservatorships in the late 1990’s. In 2018, the Legislature made changes to the law concerning state takeovers of local school districts, mandating that schools which undergo conservatorship not be released from state control until the district has achieved a rating of C or higher for five consecutive years. 

For districts that cannot make the turnaround from the outset, state takeovers will last longer than they have in the past. 

For example — Noxubee County School District was placed under conservatorship prior to the 2018-2019 school year, but was unable to achieve a C rating until the 2022-23 school year. This means the earliest the district can achieve the necessary requirement to be released from conservatorship is at the conclusion of the 2026-2027 school year. By this point, the school will have been under state control for nine years — and that’s only if the district is able to maintain a C rating for four more consecutive years. 

Holmes County Consolidated School District has been under state control since 2021.

This is Tunica district’s second conservatorship since 1996. When asked if she was confident in Tunica County School District’s success post-conservatorship Pulley said: “All the protocols are in place for Tunica to be successful. They should continue to be successful,” she said. 

The Mississippi Department of Education echoed this sentiment. 

“Successful school districts rely on effective leadership from their local school boards, district administrators and school principals,” Jean Gordon Cook, MDE communications chief, said. “Tunica County School District interim superintendent Dr. Margie Pulley has set the district up for success by implementing high-quality instruction, sound financial management and ensuring all accreditation standards are in compliance.”

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