It’s up to Gov. Phil Bryant to decide whether a 1,585-student Mississippi school district will be taken over by the state.
The State Board of Education voted to declare an extreme emergency situation exists in the Noxubee County School District due to concerns with the district’s financial and educational practices. A day earlier, the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation voted unanimously to declare an emergency situation exists that endangers the students.
The decision stems from the results of a recent investigative audit conducted by the Mississippi Department of Education which found Noxubee in violation of 81 percent of the state’s accreditation standards which all public schools are required to comply with.
“The Noxubee County School District has failed its students,” Special Assistant Attorney General Erin Meyer said in closing arguments on behalf of MDE. “The district cannot continue to function without the state’s assistance.”
The audit cited problems with proper reporting of data to the state, allowing students to graduate who did not meet graduation requirements, and unlicensed teachers teaching.
The district received its second consecutive F rating last October. At Thursday’s meeting, Noxubee Superintendent Roger Liddell said he accepts the audit but does not agree with all of its findings.
“The picture being painted here today looks like we’re in a third world country,” said Liddell. “But there’s a lot of things in Noxubee County that are going right.”
Liddell told the board he feels the district has a target on its back — last November the district was recommended to join the Achievement School District which will be run by the state. That did not happen since the MDE has yet to appoint a leader for that state-run district.
The investigative audit took place from June 25 to July 3, and district officials received the report July 13, a few days before they were required to appear before the commission.
“A takeover should not be an overnight thing,” Liddell said.
Liddell argued his district is making strides in educational improvement, but board members and MDE officials also voiced several concerns with Noxubee’s finances.
MDE Chief Financial Officer Felicia Gavin said the department believes the district will not be able to make payroll or other financial obligations in the coming months. The audit ultimately came about because Gavin received a letter from the district asking for financial assistance.
Noxubee County school board president Albert Williams told the board he wanted to rescind the request for assistance and the district was prepared to lay off non-instructional employees to be able to make payroll in the future.
Board members were skeptical of this solution, telling Noxubee staff it’s their responsibility to keep a handle on district finances and understand what is going on.
“How do you get to a point where you have no idea where the next dollar is coming from?” board member Sean Suggs asked.
The governor’s declaration of a state of emergency would allow the state to place Noxubee in the “District of Transformation” model — since 1996, the state has taken over school districts 19 times. Currently, the Leflore County School District and Tunica County School District are under conservatorship.
Under this model, the state board replaces the local school board and members can appoint an interim superintendent. There is no timeline for Bryant to make a decision, but if he does choose to declare a state of emergency, Noxubee County will have an interim superintendent until the district earns an accountability grade of C or higher for five years.
In a statement, Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler said “Gov. Bryant will carefully review the request before making a decision. As always, his first concern is doing what is best for students.”
The board announced after they came out of executive session that George Gilreath would serve as a temporary interim superintendent and Rodriguez Broadnax would serve as the interim superintendent. This only goes into effect if the state of emergency is declared.
“It is our belief that the students in Noxubee County cannot be taken care of by anybody other than the leaders and teachers of Noxubee county,” Liddell said. “If we are taken over it’s going to be detrimental to our community.”