Holmes County Consolidated School District. Credit: Jackie Mader, The Hechinger Report

The Holmes County Consolidated School District, one of the state’s most troubled districts that is under investigation by the state education department, has a new superintendent — a former principal who has never held a district-level position and has been in Holmes County less than two years.

Debra Powell, the new superintendent, is also a colleague of former Holmes County Superintendent James Henderson, whom she worked with in St. Louis Public Schools for several years. Henderson, who was Powell’s boss in St. Louis and hired her as a middle school and high school principal in Holmes County, came under fire in a scathing report by the state auditor’s office that revealed widespread problems in the district, including a lack of background checks for employees and misappropriation of funds. 

The audit resulted in the appointment of a financial adviser by the Mississippi Department of Education to take over the district’s finances. The district is also the subject of an investigative audit to ensure its complying with state and federal law in addition to accreditation standards.

The Board of Trustees last week voted 4-1 to appoint Powell as the superintendent beginning in the fall of this year. Before coming to Holmes County in 2019, Powell worked as the principal at Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. Before that, she was principal of Vashon High School in St. Louis. The longest she ever served as principal at one school is two years.

Board President Louise Winters said she is not concerned by Powell’s connection to Henderson, and that the board chose the best candidate based on responses it received from a community survey.

“Dr. Powell was the closest to what the survey (responses) and our stakeholders wanted,” Winters said, noting there were over 20 candidates brought forth by the Mississippi School Board Association. The association conducted the search on behalf of the district, as it has for other districts across the state. The organization presents all candidates to the school board but does not make recommendations about who to hire.

Powell will earn an annual salary of $125,000 to oversee the district of about 2,600 students, according to her contract. She is also eligible for a pay raise if both a state-approved teacher pay raise and “a performance-based measure of growth and student achievement” occurs.

She will also be provided a car “for her use in conducting the business of the district.”

Rayford Horton, the one “no” vote for Powell, said he believed other candidates had stronger records of improving struggling schools and districts. Holmes County has been rated as failing every year since 2016. School districts may be eligible for state takeover after two consecutive years of an ‘F’ rating, but Holmes County has so far escaped that fate.

Shella Head, president of the newly formed community engagement council for the school district, said at a board meeting she had concerns about how the board went about selecting the superintendent. 

“There’s nothing in her background to show she has supervised a school district, as in understanding the day-to-day operations, state and federal funding, test scores — all of the different variations you have to deal with to move a school district forward,” Head said. “Holmes County is in a critical situation. We don’t need on-the-job training … We need somebody who knows what they’re doing and has been proven to know what they’re doing.” 

It’s hard to say whether Powell improved students’ academic performance at the two schools where she was principal in Missouri. The state underwent a change in testing in 2017, the year she left Vashon High School and started at Paseo, so results from 2017 are not comparable to the years prior and after.

According to 2019 school performance results for Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, the school did see improvements in certain academic areas such as English and science, and is on track to make improvements in math.

It received less positive scores for improvement in the area of college and career-readiness, which the state measures by percentage of graduates defined as college or career-ready; percentage of graduates that earned Advanced Placement or vocational credits; and percentage of graduates employed or furthering their education six months after graduation.

Before working as principal at Paseo, she served as principal from 2015 to 2017 at Vashon High School in St. Louis. In 2016, the school achieved a score of 50.5 points out of 140 possible points on its annual performance report. The data for 2017 for the school was incomplete. 

Powell introduced herself at the school board’s May meeting.

“We (the superintendent and board) are just six people. We will not move this district from ‘F’ status on up if you, the people, don’t lock arms with us to join us in what we’re going to be doing,” said Powell. “I’m excited and I know that we can do it.” 

Winters is optimistic about the district’s future with Powell.

“I do know when you’re surrounded by positive people, you can get where you’re trying to get,” she said.

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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.