School district challenges state education board decision Credit:

Rather than place the district in the hands of the state, the Mississippi State Board of Education is assigning a financial advisor to the Wayne County School District.

The decision came after a series of meetings this week where district officials plead their case before the Commission on School Accreditation and state board.

The state has taken over school districts 20 times since 1997.

The question of whether Wayne County schools should remain in local control stems from the district’s finances. In June, Mississippi Department of Education Chief Financial Officer Felicia Gavin said she received a phone call from the district’s business manager warning that the Wayne County School District was in poor financial condition. This prompted state officials to visit and review financial records where they noticed several violations, Gavin said. The discovery led state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright to request an investigative audit of the district.

Additionally, in November state auditor Shad White sent a letter to the board warning of the district’s poor financial practices. The auditor’s office found that the district misspent interest on the 16th Section loans, which is property that the school district owns and leases out.

“Due to the lack of budgetary controls that resulted in spending more resources than available, the district is financially unstable,” the letter read. “…we feel that a serious financial condition in the school district exists.”

The 250-page audit report outlines multiple violations of state accreditation policies, including:

  • Errors and inconsistencies in district salary schedules and contracts
  • Failure from the superintendent and school board to provide “effective educational leadership” in financial and day-to-day operations
  • The school district did not submit annual financial audits for years 2015-2018 by the appropriate deadline
  • Failure to accurately compile and report financial data
  • Some students enrolled in the district did not have valid proof of residency
  • The district lacked documentation to prove all graduating seniors met graduation requirements; some students graduated even though they did not meet requirements

In all, the audit found Wayne County in violation of 69 percent of these standards, or rules that all public schools in Mississippi are required to abide by.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Bobby Jones and staff presented the district’s case to the commission, arguing that “the district is not in a state of emergency but instead is doing good.” Jones noted the district has a C rating and blamed the financial woes on the district’s business manager, who he said misled him and others about how the district’s money was being spent and whether the financial audits were taking place. When he learned in June that the 16th Section funds were not being paid, he said he fired that business manager.

“He was the only person there that we supposedly thought knew what he was doing,” Jones said. “I guess my biggest failure is I had too much confidence in one person.”

Jones will be replaced by Tommy Branch as superintendent in January.

Ultimately the commission did not vote to recommend the district be taken over. On Thursday, the state board voted to assign a financial manager for the district as is required by state law when the state auditor declares a school district is in serious financial condition.

Gavin, of MDE, will serve as the district’s temporary financial advisor until the department hires a replacement.

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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.