A sign outside of John F. Kennedy High School in Mound Bayou depicting its name
Residents of Mound Bayou have filed an injunction to stop the school from closing, a decision recommended by the North Bolivar Consolidated School District Superintendent.

With time running out before the first day school, North Bolivar consolidated district officials, school staff and parents don’t know if the district will be operating five schools or three this fall.

John F. Kennedy High School in Mound Bayou — one of two Bolivar County schools slated to close — is temporarily scheduled to remain open for the school year, pending a judge’s final order.

“Basically everything is kind of on hold. We have to plan at this point as if we are going to be as we were last year,” said Maurice Smith, superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated School District.

However, Chancery Judge W.M. Sanders will issue an order any time between now and the beginning of the school year that could result in the high school’s closure.

If that happens, “We will have to make preparations for a new configuration,” Smith said.

That means the district would have to scrap plans to operate five schools during the 2018-2019 academic year and instead downsize to three.

In January, the North Bolivar Consolidated District school board voted 3-2 to adopt a plan that would involve closing the high school in Mound Bayou and housing all high school students in Shelby. Smith cited declines in enrollment, funds and certified teachers as reasons why the district needed to reduce its number of schools.

The decision — which also includes a middle school in Shelby — was met with public outcry from Mound Bayou citizens, who said closing their high school would eliminate a significant element of history.  

Residents from Mound Bayou filed an injunction in March asking Chancery Judge W.M. Sanders to stop the board and Smith from taking any further action with closing the school, both temporarily and permanently. They also asked that Smith be removed from his position.

Mound Bayou mayor Eulah Peterson said that granting the injunction would allow the community to give more feedback and thoroughly assess the district’s financials.

Mound Bayou mayor Eulah Peterson outside of city hall

“That will give us an opportunity to sit down, as we should have done in the first place, and have some more input into the reconfiguration and what could happen to cut dollars. There are other ways before you go the route that we went (with closing two schools) … The very last thing that should happen is to bus children to Shelby or from Shelby to Mound Bayou,” Peterson said.

The call for an injunction relies on three main arguments: Smith was not properly licensed when he recommended to the board that they consolidate, the decision was illegally voted upon in executive session, and that when the Legislature made Mound Bayou School District consolidate with North Bolivar School District in 2014, “the Mississippi Legislature did not construe the consolidation as a requirement to close any school.”

Attorney John Hooks, who represents the District and Smith, refuted these claims and argued that Sanders does not have the legal authority to stop a school board from ever closing a school.

“Nowhere is there a claim that the decision of the school board has been made arbitrarily,” Hooks said in court on Monday. “As Mr. Smith testified, the school board does not relish in closing a school.”

Peterson remains optimistic about the odds of keeping the high school open.

“I am hopeful. I am prayful, but if not then I’m trusting that it will be appealed,” she said. “That’s something that [the petitioners will] have to decide, but I’m hoping we don’t let it die at that point.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.