State-appointed superintendent still not in place following takeover of Holmes County schools

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HOLMES COUNTY, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – Four days after Gov. Tate Reeves authorized a state takeover of the Holmes County Consolidated School District and removed the current superintendent and school board, the new state-appointed superintendent is not yet in the district.

Students returned to school for the first time in over a year on Thursday, the day the emergency was declared by the governor and the school district was abolished per the recommendation of the State Board of Education, which now serves as the local school board.

Since then, there has effectively been no one running the day-to-day operations of the district.

Washington Cole, the deputy state superintendent and chief of staff, came to the district Monday afternoon to deliver communications to former officials and brief current staff.

“There’s a process to abolish the district,” Cook said when asked why a Mississippi Department of Education official only arrived Monday afternoon.

Jennifer Wilson, the new interim superintendent and former leader of Greenwood schools, will be in the district Tuesday, said Cook.

A COVID-19 outbreak occurred at the district middle school and several high school students got in a fight Monday morning, but administrators have received no communication from the state education department or the newly appointed interim superintendent Jennifer Wilson on how to proceed, according to former board president Louise Winters.

Winters questioned why no state officials were immediately present — particularly at the start of a new school year during the COVID-19 pandemic — if such an emergency existed in the district.

Holmes County Sheriff Willie March confirmed that a fight broke out Monday morning at the high school between around seven students. He said more deputies from his office will be at the school this afternoon out of precaution.

Clarence Webster, an attorney for the former superintendent and school board members, said his clients were instructed not to intervene during the problems that arose on Monday.

“Today, counsel received notice that Dr. (Debra) Powell (the former superintendent) is to take no further action vis-a-vis HCCSD,” Webster told Mississippi Today. “According to the State Board of Education’s counsel, the interim superintendent will be in the district for the first time in her official capacity Tuesday.”

The takeover of the district came following a nearly 400-page audit from the Mississippi Department of Education that found the district in violation of 81% of accreditation standards. The allegations include a dysfunctional school board and administration, improper spending, inaccurate record keeping and unlicensed teachers in the classroom. 

Two hearings took place last week in front of the Commission on School Accreditation and the State Board of Education. Both bodies voted unanimously to recommend the governor pave the way for the state to take over the district as a result of allegations of violations of state and federal law in addition to state accreditation standards and rampant financial problems.

The district’s own auditor in 2019 essentially declared the district unable to be audited because of missing and inaccurate record keeping. The state auditor’s office in 2020 released its own report revealing widespread problems in the district under its former superintendent James Henderson. Henderson resigned shortly before the report was released.

As a result of the state auditor’s report, the Mississippi Department of Education appointed a financial adviser in May to take over the district’s finances.

The school board hired Debra Powell to lead the district around the same time. Powell, Winters and other district officials at the hearings last week protested against a state takeover and maintained they were already working to fix the district’s many problems.

The governor’s declaration marks the 21st time the state has taken over a school district since 1997.

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