Judge wants more information in Franklin County schools desegregation case

Print More

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate said Thursday he needs more information before making a decision in the Franklin County School District’s request to be released from a nearly 50-year-old federal desegregation order.

Although the hearing on the district’s petition concluded Thursday following testimony on behalf of the school district and from some residents opposed to the district’s request, Wingate announced from the bench that he wants the school district and the U.S. Justice Department to file additional information in three weeks.

Testimony concluded Thursday with school board President Gloria Hayes Defending the district’s hiring practices and budget.

School board attorney Lane Reed questioned Hayes, an African-American who attended Franklin County schools and has served on the board for 16 years. He asked whether the district discriminates on the basis of race in its hiring.

“No, not that I see,” Hayes responded.

Hayes specifically discussed the choice of Chris Kent, a white male, for the interim superintendent position in May 2016. She said while there were originally two candidates who applied – an African American female from the central office and Kent, then a principal – on the day of the interviews, the female withdrew her application.

Kent was named interim superintendent by a unanimous vote by five board members and went on to win the election for superintendent in November that same year.

Hayes acknowledged when questioned by the U.S. Department of Justice that she had not ever received any formal training on the obligations of the desegregation order during her time on the school board.

After Hayes’ testimony concluded, Wingate asked the school district for more information and statistics regarding alternative school and youth court referrals, the district’s dropout rate, allegations of nepotism in the district and whether any teachers without certification were currently teaching in the district.

The school district put Kent back on the stand to address those questions. Kent reported an average of about 6 to 8 youth court referrals each year, and a dropout rate in the district well below the state average of 4.6 percent.

He also confirmed that 100 percent of the district’s teachers are highly qualified, or have the proper certification, as reported to the Mississippi Department of Education. Allegations of noncertified, white teachers being awarded positions over certified, black teachers had come up in testimony earlier that week.

Kent also confirmed he knew of no instance in the district where an employee was the supervisor of a direct, first degree relative such as a wife, husband, son or daughter. While Kent’s wife is employed at the vocational school in a part-time position, he said, she held that job before he became superintendent and he does not directly oversee her.

Wingate ordered both parties — the school district and the U.S. Department of Justice — to submit “position papers” to the court over the course of the next three weeks.

Although the federal government had indicated in June it no longer opposed the district’s motion for unitary status, thus prompting the hearing, an attorney for the Department told the judge Thursday she wanted to go back and confer with colleagues before making any official statement on the Department’s current position.

Depending on the Department’s position, the parties could be summoned back to court for Wingate to hear more from both sides.

If the Department maintains its same position, however, Wingate will then rule whether to allow the district to be dismissed from federal oversight.

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.