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.

A judge’s order has cleared the way for Mound Bayou’s high school to stay open for now.

Last week, in a case where residents of the historic town are challenging the school district’s decision to close their high school, a judge said that neither party was in compliance with rules governing closing the school or appealing the process.

But it’s what Chancery Judge W.M. Sanders said in her order that has left the school district silent and the Mississippi Board of Education being asked how they fit in the process.

Sanders ordered John F. Kennedy Memorial High School to stay open until the Mississippi Board of Education “rules on the reconfiguration plan of closing [the high school] as proposed by the North Bolivar Consolidated School District.”

But the Mississippi Department of Education maintains that reconfiguring the district is a local issue, not a state one.

“I have confirmed that decisions about closing or consolidating schools within a school district is a local district decision. The State Board of Education gets involved when school district boundaries change due to a district consolidation,” wrote MDE Communications Specialist Jean Cook in an email to Mississippi Today.

Multiple calls and voicemails left with North Bolivar Consolidated superintendent Maurice Smith were not returned.

Sanders’ order came after three days of testimony and oral arguments over whether the district could lawfully close the high school in Mound Bayou.

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. A middle school in Shelby would also close, bringing the district’s number of schools from five down to three.

At the time, Smith cited declines in enrollment, funds and certified teachers as reasons why the district needed to reduce its number of schools.

Mound Bayou residents said that there wasn’t ample public discussion offered before this decision was made, and that closing the high school would eliminate a pivotal piece of African-American history.

They filed an injunction in March asking 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.

Sanders laid out in her order that, “The court is of the opinion that neither the petitioners or the respondents have fully complied with statutory requirements for closing, reconfiguring or appealing said closing and or/reconfiguration of the North Bolivar School District.”

While she did not necessarily rule that the petitioners claim had legal merit, she wrote, “the respondents in their decision to close John F. Kennedy Memorial High School have failed to get proper approval from the Department of Education.” 

Therefore, the school is to stay open “until such time as the North Bolivar Consolidated School District seeks and obtains approval of its reconfiguration plan … from the Mississippi Board of Education,” the order states.

Mississippi law provides that local school boards have the authority to close any or all schools in its districts as long as it benefits all “educable children” in its district.

A separate law, which Sanders used to guide her ruling, states, “no order of the school board reorganizing, abolishing or altering any school district … shall be final unless and until said proposed reorganization, alteration or abolition shall be submitted to and approved by the State Board of Education.”

MDE would not provide further clarity on what its role would be in North Bolivar Consolidated School District’s reconfiguration given this court order, but reiterated that “decisions about closing or consolidating schools within a school district is a local district decision,” and that, “The State Board of Education gets involved when school district boundaries change due to a district consolidation.”

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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.