The Cleveland School Board called a special meeting on Monday to announce new leadership for the upcoming school year and allow the public to comment.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of the federal judge’s desegregation order for the school district last Monday.

No matter what the court outcome is, the board said it has chosen the leadership for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. East Side’s president Randy Grierson will serve as principal for the high school, and D.M. Smith Middle School’s president L’Kenna Whitehead will serve as principal for the middle school.

Todd Fuller, vice president of the Board of Trustees of the Cleveland School District Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

“We gave you two things tonight. We gave you leadership for the high school and leadership for the junior high,” said vice president Todd Fuller. “This board are not experts when it comes to education but those guys are.”

Fuller said regardless of what the court says and if there is one school or two, Grierson and Whitehead are the leadership.

“Board, you all don’t have to wait on the courts. The ball is in your court. You all can go further than what the court has said,” said Arlene Sanders, an instructor at Delta State University.

The meeting was moved from the central office to the cafeteria of Margaret Green Junior High School, which was packed from wall to wall.

There were questions and opinions offered from students, parents, and teachers on different topics that they felt were important which turned into a heated debate. Emotions were high with constant interruptions, yelling, booing, cheering, and clapping from the crowd.

The crowd argued about topics of parenting skills, racial tensions, discipline problems in the schools, having a quality education, to there being no problems within the school districts at all.

Some questions and comments included:

• “If you have a majority black school district, why is white flight even brought up in this conversation?” asked Jamese Green, a student.

• “I don’t know why people think the white kids have such a privilege,” said Jackie Williamson.

• “What happens with sports moving forward?” asked Amy Kitchens, a teacher.

One middle school student stood up to ask why isn’t the board sticking to one plan. A teacher asked the board what are the ultimate grounds for appealing the desegregation order. Someone else asked the board why aren’t they giving more information on what’s going on.

There was mention of receiving information from the “street committee” because the board members haven’t given much information.

Jamie Jacks, attorney of the Board of Trustees for the Cleveland School District Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

School board attorney Jamie Jacks stepped in to clarify misunderstandings about sports.

“The Mississippi High School Activities Association has told the Cleveland School District that it has several options going forward to be able to play next year,” said Jacks. “Contrary to information you may have heard from the street committee, there will be sports in the Cleveland School District next year.”

These options were: play at the 5A level as a joint team with a post season or play on a 3A or 4A level as two different schools as an independent with no post season.

Some audience members commended the board on their job well done while others hounded them for not being more open about the process. Most of the board members weren’t very vocal, but a few decided to speak up.

A lot of questions centered on the board’s appeal of the original desegregation order and the impact of the appeals court ordering a stay almost a year later.

“I have voted consistently against the appeal,” said board member Tonya Short.

“As you are aware, I voted against the appeal,” said Dr. Christeen Seals, chaplain of the board.

If the appeal is denied, the district mentioned another possible option, plan E, which is the Unified High School Plan. This plan would implement one middle school for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at Margaret Green Junior High School, ninth and 10th graders at East Side High School, and 11th and 12th graders at Cleveland High School. This plan was proposed by Superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen.

“The recommendation for splitting the ninth and 10th grade from the 11th and 12th grade was made because we’ve been arguing over this since 2007,” said Thigpen. “It is time for us to move forward.”

Plaintiffs in the desegregation case have said they are opposed to the Plan E suggested by the Cleveland school board.

Thigpen said that she asked the board if they wouldn’t agree to the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders going to the east side campus, could they compromise by moving the ninth and tenth graders to East Side.

“I don’t get a vote, so I made the recommendation for those reasons,” said Thigpen. She said whatever works, whether its plan E or the plaintiff’s plan, she wants to be aware so they can be prepared for the upcoming school year.

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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.