Testimony continues in Franklin County schools desegregation case

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U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate on Tuesday continued to hear testimony from individuals opposed to the federal government releasing the Franklin County School District from the court’s oversight.

The hearing was set after the U.S. Department of Justice announced in June that it would no longer oppose the school district’s motion for declaration of unitary status — its push for the court to release it from federal oversight.

Frank Jenkins, the African-American parent of children in the school district and a pastor at a local church, said his daughter was unfairly denied the title of valedictorian when she graduated in 2006.

The honor was instead given to a white student, and his daughter was not given her salutatorian trophy until 2013 when an employee of the district found it in a trash can at the school and brought it to him to pass on to his daughter, Jenkins testified.

“She still wears the scars of what happened to her in Franklin County School District,” Jenkins said of his daughter, who went on to graduate from the honors college at Ole Miss and with a graduate degree from Mississippi College.

Jenkins also spoke of nepotism in the school district in past years but acknowledged he has no first hand information of current nepotism or unfair hiring practices.

Willie Mae Briggs Bailey, also African-American, spoke about what she believed was unfair treatment of her grandson who attended the high school for three years. She said she believes she was purposely not told that he had fallen behind on his graduation requirements and did not pass one of his state tests.

As a result, she testified that she paid for him to attend private school to receive the credits he lacked and graduate.

Talina K. Matthews, a math teacher at the high school, reiterated the statements she made in her written letter to the court.

“I’m afraid of the repercussions of me being here,” she told Wingate.

She said her “mistrust” of school district officials began with an incident in 2012 in which she and other teachers were ordered to pay back the money they had earned tutoring at an after-school program. After the district determined paying the teachers for one day of the after-school program while also paying them as teachers was “double dipping,” she said, she had to reimburse the district about $800.

In addition to hearing from witnesses, Wingate granted a motion made by an attorney representing Mississippi Today to quash a subpoena by the school district seeking to compel Mississippi Today reporter Kate Royals to testify in the hearing.

The school district will bring forward its witnesses, including a former superintendent and current principal, to testify before Wingate on Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed its original complaint against the district in 1969, asserting the district was operating the two separate schools “as a means of perpetuating racially segregated schools.”

In its motion for declaration of unitary status, filed in December 2015, the school district said it has operated on a “unified basis” since combining the formerly all-white Franklin School and the formerly all-black Lillie Mae Bryant School in 1970. It said everything from transportation to staff to extracurricular activities are integrated.

Franklin County School District is one of 42 school districts in Mississippi still under federal desegregation orders from the 1960s and 1970s.