Holmes County Central High School Credit: Jackie Mader, The Hechinger Report

The state auditor’s office earlier this month uncovered extensive misspending and poor financial management and record keeping in the Holmes County Consolidated School District.

The audit of the district revealed 25 total findings, including that taxpayers footed the bill for a “B.Y.O.B., adults only” party that cost $4,200, and that the former superintendent was paid $170,000 annually even though minutes from the board meeting the board approved a salary of $160,000.

The report also said the district paid $14,000 to businesses owned by relatives of James Henderson, the superintendent at the time, and that the relationships were not disclosed to the board.

“This audit reveals widespread problems,” said Mississippi State Auditor Shad White in a press release. “The public school students of Holmes County and the taxpayers are the victims here.”

James Henderson Credit: Proviso Township High Schools D209

Henderson, who resigned in June of this year and took a position as superintendent in Forest Park, Ill., told Mississippi Today that several of the findings are untrue and described the investigation as a “witch hunt” resulting from a personnel decision he made when he first became superintendent. 

He provided a copy of his contract to Mississippi Today, which shows his salary was set at $170,000. The school board sets the superintendent’s salary. He said he will not be repaying the $20,000 that auditors claim he was overpaid in the two years he worked in the district. 

Henderson also said board members were aware that the businesses the district was using were those of his family members.

“Everybody knows everybody in a small town. There are only two restaurants in Holmes County,” Henderson, a native of Holmes County who has worked in schools across the country, said. “The whole board (of trustees) knows my family because I come from a large family of 16 siblings.”  

As for the “adults only” gathering, Henderson said it was a “get out the vote” effort to raise awareness around a bond issue on the ballot in 2019. The auditor’s report says the event was held “celebrate the passing of a school bond; however, the bond did not pass.” 

Credit: Provided by James Henderson

The flyer for the event, which he also provided to Mississippi Today, advertised it as a “parents’ night out” with a barbecue dinner. The bottom reads “Adults only! Bring lawn chairs & your preferred beverage.” 

The event was paid for using some district funds and some funds raised by a school committee, he said, and he took issue with the way the report described the event as “B.Y.O.B.”

“I think that is racism in Mississippi at its finest in making that statement,” said Henderson. “I did not put out any flyer to bring your own bottle.” 

Other findings from the report include:

  • An $8 million difference in what was reported in four of the school districts’ bank accounts versus the district’s general ledger’s cash balance.
  • $12,338 in charges on a credit card purchased by the district without the approval of the board. There were no itemized receipts.  
  • Improper record keeping regarding employees’ travel reimbursements
  • During a review of 20 employees’ files, the auditor’s office found six did not have certifications on file. The auditor’s office was able to independently verify the teachers were licensed.
  • Sixteen of the 20 employees did not have background checks in their files. The auditors were unable to determine whether background checks were ever completed.

Henderson said he acknowledges many of the problems revealed in the audit and said he worked to correct them during his two years as superintendent. 

During Henderson’s first year as superintendent, an assistant principal who had a criminal record was arrested for allegedly having sex with a student. Henderson said since that incident, he oversaw the implementation of a fingerprinting system at the district that returns results of a background check in 15 minutes. He said he also worked to ensure all teachers were properly licensed after discovering many were not when he first arrived at the district.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.