Following a string of alarming events in the Holmes County Consolidated School District, the Mississippi Department of Education is conducting an investigation and has appointed a financial adviser to oversee the district.
But the appointment of the financial adviser has already stirred up controversy in the district, which has been rated as failing every year since 2016.
The state department approved Shaquita Burke, the former chief financial officer of Vicksburg Warren School District, to serve as the financial adviser. When Burke was in Vicksburg, a 2019 audit not only revealed a host of problems with Vicksburg Warren’s finances but also pointed to possible “fraud, waste and abuse” on her part.
A spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education said the position was advertised, and Burke applied and met the qualifications.
But before the state department appointed Burke as financial adviser, the Holmes County school board rejected Interim Superintendent Benjamin Torrey’s recommendation to hire Burke as chief financial officer for the district. That district-level position is currently vacant, according to Holmes County school board President Louise Lewis Winters, and the superintendent has not brought forth any other candidates for the position.
Winters said after the board voted not to hire Burke, she was surprised to hear last week that the state appointed Burke to serve as the district’s financial adviser.
“The board had no knowledge of this person or anything, so when we did get knowledge, you know, we decided to vote it down because of information that came forth,” said Winters of the board’s decision not to hire Burke.
At the same time the financial adviser is working to set the district’s finances straight, the state education department is also conducting an on-site investigative audit of the district, according to an April 22 letter from State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright to the district’s interim superintendent. The audit is to determine whether the district is complying with accreditation standards and state and federal laws.
Investigative audits are done following a formal complaint, which is not made public. The department has conducted comprehensive audits for five districts in the past five years, including Holmes County.
Holmes County’s investigation comes after a report by State Auditor Shad White that highlighted “widespread problems” in the schools. Those problems included extensive misspending and poor financial management and record keeping in the district.
The audit 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 show the board approved a salary of $10,000 less.
A separate financial audit also revealed additional weaknesses, which then triggered the requirement for the Mississippi Department of Education to appoint a financial adviser to oversee the district.
The department may conduct these unannounced audits at any time following a formal complaint made to the Commission on Accreditation. According to Shella Head, president of the newly formed community engagement council in the district and parent of four former students, she believes there were multiple complaints made to MDE about events in the district.
This is in addition to the fact the district has received an ‘F’ rating for six years straight. Head, an active member in the community who has been involved with the school district for more than 25 years in various roles, says the state of the district is “stressful and heartbreaking” right now. She also said she’s been sounding the alarm about problems in the schools for years now and wonders why the state is just now stepping in.
“We have people from outside looking in it, and, to me, it appears (they think) that nobody in the county wants a quality education for the kids, when that’s so far from the truth,” she said. “The last couple years … we literally had people, including in the community, that were screaming and throwing red flags up and saying ‘Hey, something is going wrong, we need some help.'”
At the end of its audit, the department will produce a corrective action plan for the district and can recommend the district’s accreditation status be downgraded to either probation, withdrawal of accreditation or state of emergency. A determination of a state of emergency, which triggers a state takeover of the district, must be approved by the State Board of Education before being sent to the governor.
Torrey, who has acted as the interim superintendent for the district since January, reassured board members at their April 22 meeting the district is “putting processes in place to make sure we are in compliance” with accreditation standards and state and federal laws.
“Those that we aren’t in compliance with, we will continue to work to be in compliance with,” he said.