A sign outside of John F. Kennedy High School in Mound Bayou depicting its name
Residents of Mound Bayou filed an injunction to stop the school from closing, a decision recommended by the North Bolivar Consolidated School District Superintendent. Now, just before the first day of school, students and parents learn that the school will closing.

CLEVELAND — Two days before the beginning of the school year, football players for John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in Mound Bayou were told the team they’d spent the summer practicing for would no longer exist.

“Football practice was over when I did that. I went and met with those kids because I felt like they needed to hear it from me and not on the news,” said Maurice Smith, superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated School District.

He said the students reacted the way anyone would expect them to react.

“They were disappointed,” Smith said.

His announcement came after the Mississippi State Supreme Court filed an order on August 14 stating that the high school could close; the first day of school was scheduled for August 16.  

Mound Bayou mayor Eulah Peterson outside of city hall

“I think it’s a very egregious act,” said Eulah Peterson, mayor of Mound Bayou. “Nobody cares about these children. If you tell me you care about children and you make a decision two days before they start school that upsets their whole program, you’re not caring about children.”

The court’s ruling is the most recent development in a months-long battle waged by Mound Bayou citizens to try to keep the school open.

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.

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

Mound Bayou stakeholders objected to the decision, saying not enough community input was sought out on the front end and that there are alternative paths to saving the district money while preserving the high school. They also said that closing the high school would eliminate a pivotal piece of African-American history.

Since then, the school district has remained embroiled against Mound Bayou citizens.

It began with an injunction filed by Mound Bayou residents imploring Chancery Judge W.M. Sanders to stop the school consolidations, lead to three days of testimonies and arguments in three different Delta towns, resulted in a flurry of orders and appeals – the most recent of which came down from the highest court in the state. 

Gil Thompson, a community organizer in Mound Bayou indicated that this may not be the last step for town stakeholders.

“We’re in the process of trying to figure out what we’re going to do. We’ll hold on a press conference on Friday,” he said.

Smith said that although “there’s a lot of people going around trying to create division … [it’s] time for healing and moving forward.”

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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.