Dr. Margaret Pulley looked out at the sea of Tunica County School District students dressed in green and yellow shirts as she stood on a raised stage in the Paul Battle Arena. Lighted letter B’s flanked each side of the stage, representing the district’s accountability rating and likely the end of her tenure as superintendent. She adjusted her notes on the podium before speaking into the microphone.
“Good morning,” Pulley said as the hum of student voices quieted. “This is a celebration and we are going to celebrate the success of the Tunica County School District. We are celebrating teaching and learning.”
The district’s road to success, after struggling against failing scores before the conservatorship began nearly a decade ago, has not been easy.
Struggles Trace Back to Sabotaged Integration
Tunica, Miss., sits along Highway 61, often referred to as the Mississippi Blues Highway. When the soybean, cotton and corn fields suddenly drift out of sight, weathered buildings appear signaling drivers have entered the town. Shuttered businesses are scattered among others that are still operating. The outlet mall, a shell of its former self, sits as a reminder of the town’s once-booming economy.
At its peak, Tunica County boasted the third most profitable casinos between Atlantic City and Las Vegas. A 2019 Los Angeles Times article estimated that at one point the casinos employed more than 12,000 workers and brought in about $1.66 billion in revenue. The county dedicated 12% of that revenue to the public school system.
But a 1997 Mississippi Department of Education report found that the district had used the funds on non-instructional expenditures such as salary increases for personnel that had no direct effect on student achievement. At that time, the district had been among a small number to be assigned the State’s lowest accreditation level for eight of the previous nine years. The State took control of Tunica Public Schools for the first time that year.
“We can go back probably 20
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