The Franklin County School District superintendent and high school principal testified in federal court Wednesday that they do not employ racially discriminatory practices in making school district hires.
The testimony came before U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate in the third day of a fairness hearing that will determine whether the district is removed from a longstanding federal consent decree.
In testimony Monday and Tuesday some district residents made allegations that the district uses unfair and racially discriminatory hiring practices.
Superintendent Chris Kent said that since he was appointed interim superintendent in May of 2016 and then elected to the position in November, he has utilized hiring committees made up of black and white employees.
He said he has always followed the committee recommendations when making hires.
Kent also addressed a specific complaint by Carla Bell, a former teacher in the district who applied to several administrative positions.
Kent said while Bell did a good job managing her classroom as a teacher, she had committed a violation during state testing in which she was using her cell phone during the testing period. During the interview process for one of the jobs, he said, she also was “weak in her understanding” of discipline and academic matters, and the principal recommended another candidate for the position.
The school district attorneys also asked Kent about the racial makeup of the central office. He responded that four of the top administrators — the special education director, transportation director, federal programs director and business manager — are African American.
Kent acknowledged he would like the district to do a better job at recruiting teachers from historically black colleges and universities, but said that at this time, it’s difficult to find qualified teachers of any race to teach in Franklin County.
M.D. Bilbo, the principal of Franklin High School, also answered questions about his hiring practices and past discipline incidents of students. Bilbo said that while he has not used hiring committees, he is beginning to do so this year at the request of the superintendent.
Bilbo denied an allegation that he had hired an English teacher without any certification at the high school over a current 8th grade English teacher who had also expressed interest in the position.
“All of the teachers we hire are highly qualified,” he said, explaining each one must have certification in the area they teach.
Bilbo also answered questions from Wingate about his decision to install a video camera in the classroom of math teacher Talina Matthews, who testified on Tuesday that she felt singled out and stigmatized by his decision to install the camera.
Matthews is the only teacher to have a video camera installed in her room in the school.
He said he made the decision after parents of a student in Matthews’ classroom said she had intimidated and mistreated their child. He told Wingate he never found any evidence that supported the parents’ claims.
“I thought it would help protect Ms. Matthews, and to reassure the parents these things weren’t happening,” he told Wingate.
Wingate asked whether Bilbo considered whether the presence of a camera in the classroom might have led students and other teachers to believe Matthews had done something wrong despite his findings otherwise.
Bilbo responded that while he did not think of that at the time, he can see now how it would appear that way.
Bilbo, who has been principal for 26 years, also said he had no knowledge of any grade tampering of a female African American student in 2006. Her father, Frank Jenkins, testified Tuesday that she had been cheated of the position of valedictorian and was instead named salutatorian. He also stated she was not ever given her salutatorian trophy until years later when a teacher found it in a garbage can.
Bilbo said he had no knowledge of that incident.
Attorneys for the school district said they will bring forward the school board president and possibly one other witness to testify Thursday. The U.S. Department of Justice counsel indicated the department does not plan to bring forward any witnesses.
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.
The U.S. Department of Justice indicated in June it no longer opposes the district’s motion for unitary status.
Franklin County School District is one of 42 school districts in Mississippi still under federal desegregation orders from the 1960s and 1970s.