Noxubee County School District Superintendent Roger Liddell, right, district lead attorney Bennie L. Jones Jr., second from right, Noxubee County School District board chairman Albert Williams, and county school district financial officer Pam Norris, listen to questions, during a hearing in Jackson, Wednesday

The state is one step closer to intervening in the Noxubee County School District after state education officials declared an extreme emergency situation exists.

During a Commission on School Accreditation meeting Wednesday members argued the North Mississippi district was violating state and federal laws, while district officials offered pleas for a second chance.

With a unanimous vote, the commission declared an extreme emergency situation exists in the district that puts students in danger. The State Board of Education will take up the matter Thursday.

The discussion centered around a 200-page investigative audit conducted by the state Department of Education from June 25 to July 3 this year. It found the district in violation of 26 out of 32 state accreditation standards. The state could not verify if Noxubee was in compliance with some standards surrounding school day practices since school was not in session.

The audit listed issues with budgeting and financial practices, reporting data to the state, teachers working without licenses or in the wrong areas of endorsement, and allowing students to graduate who did not meet graduation requirements, among other problems.

Mississippi Department of Education Chief of Accountability Paula Vanderford

MDE Chief of Accountability Paula Vanderford said the audit came about because the agency’s chief of operations received a letter from the district asking for help surrounding its finances. This prompted state Superintendent Carey Wright to order an investigative audit of the school district.

Vanderford described the violations to the commission and said the department was concerned about the district’s ability make payroll in the coming months. Additionally, officials failed to put in place proper instructional management plans or document the professional help offered to teachers and administrators, she said.

One of the commission’s biggest concerns was with the district finances — Noxubee County as of Wednesday had not submitted required annual financial audits from recent fiscal years to the office of the State Auditor.

“You know it’s coming, all of you do,” commission member Michael Miller said. “So how could we go two or three years without submitting one?”

Noxubee officials blamed the independent auditor they hired at the time to conduct those annual audits, telling the commission they’ve since cut ties with that group and hired a new auditor. They expect to be caught up on all of their financial audits by March 2019.

In his rebuttal, Noxubee County Superintendent Roger Liddell had a simple request of the commission — more time and money. He took full responsibility for the violations but argued several of the findings had already been corrected.

Noxubee school board chair Albert Williams echoed his points, telling the board the district needs help and understands it has financial challenges.

“We will be happy, glad to go back and roll up our sleeves and make this happen.” Williams said. “With MDE’s support we can make it happen.”

The audit states that staff reported Liddell “manages through the use of fear and intimidation, including yelling at and belittling staff members both in private and in staff meetings.”

Noxubee County School District Superintendent Roger Liddell

When commission member Brian Harvey (who is also current superintendent of the Oxford School District) asked about the audit allegation that he demanded records be falsified, Liddell responded “I certainly respond negatively to that.

“That is inaccurate, untrue,” Liddell said. “I have no idea who would say that.”

In October 2017, four of the district’s schools received an F rating, and the district as a whole received its second consecutive F accountability rating.

During his presentation, Liddell argued his schools saw drops in test scores due to the state changing state tests from year to year and pointed out that last year the district was just a few points away from a D accountability rating.

One month after that F rating, the state education officials recommended Noxubee County be placed in the state-run Achievement School District. The ASD is not yet operational, but the 1,500-student district can still be taken over if the state board of education also agrees there is an extreme emergency situation and the governor declares a state of emergency.

The Jackson Public School District found itself in a similar situation last year — in September 2017, both the commission and state board of education declared an extreme emergency situation in the district. That left it up to Gov. Phil Bryant to decide whether to declare a state of emergency. Instead, he announced the Better Together Commission which is still working with the district today.

What happens to Noxubee is now in the hands of the State Board of Education, which will meet Thursday and go through the same process. If the board also declares an emergency situation exists, Gov. Phil Bryant will decide whether to sign a declaration of emergency which would prompt a state takeover. Noxubee’s school board would be dissolved and the state board would serve in its place.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.