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School board members for the Holmes County Consolidated School District promoted the daughter of the new superintendent from a $47,000-a-year position in the district to the director of technology, a district-level position with an annual salary of $82,920.
At a special called board meeting last month, the board voted to approve the hire of Superintendent Debra Powell’s daughter with only one member opposing, according to the meeting minutes.
The board first approved Powell’s recommendation of Shimelle Mayers as assistant superintendent of the district. Shortly after, Mayers presented the job description for the technology director position and recommended Powell’s daughter for the position.
The district came under fire for similar practices under former superintendent James Henderson. A report by the state auditor’s office revealed “widespread problems” in the district, including that the district paid $14,000 to businesses owned by relatives of Henderson, and that the relationships were not disclosed to the board.
In May, the Mississippi Department of Education launched an investigation of the embattled district and appointed a financial adviser to oversee the district’s finances. Holmes County schools have received a failing grade for six consecutive years.
State law has a general nepotism statute that says “no public servant shall use his official position to obtain, or attempt to obtain … pecuniary benefit for any relative or any business with which he is associated.” The Mississippi Ethics Commission, the body that issues advisory opinions regarding the state’s conflict-of-interest and ethics laws, has also sounded off on a similar situation.
“If a superintendent recommends his or her relative to the school board for employment or renewal, then the superintendent will violate” the law, a 2017 opinion states. It continues to outline what it calls a “step aside” provision in the law which allows a superintendent’s designee to recommend the superintendent’s relatives to no more than two positions at a school.
“The Office of the Attorney General has opined that Section 37-9-17 is applicable only to employees of schools and is not applicable to employees of the district office,” the opinion continues.
An organizational chart for the Holmes County district shows the technology director position is a district-level position that reports to the assistant superintendent.
Questions submitted to Powell and Winters, including whether they sought the advice of the Ethics Commission before the school board approved Powell’s daughter, were not returned.
Shimelle Mayers, the newly appointed assistant superintendent in the district, said in a statement that Karmeen Powell-Childress, Powell’s daughter, “was selected because of her knowledge and experience in technology and business.”
“As it relates to the position of Director of Technology, there were three internal candidates and two external candidates. The interview committee scored the applicants and sent them to me; we did not discuss our selection with each other … Dr. Powell was not on the interview committee, nor was she present on the campus during the interviews.”
At the same meeting, the board also hired the son of Board President Louise Winters as a teacher in the district. The minutes show Winters recused herself from the vote. A 2006 opinion by the Mississippi Ethics Commission says this is allowed as long as the child and parent are financially independent and the parent recuses him or herself from the vote.
Shella Head, president of the P-16, a council made up of public members that is legally required in failing schools, said she believes more qualified candidates were overlooked for the position.
“The fact that this woman (Debra Powell) was hired by the board May 10 (as superintendent), and the first thing she did as superintendent was to put her daughter in an $82,000 job and overlook qualified people is very concerning,” said Head. “As president of the P-16 council, my concern is with the children of Holmes County and their education and their future.”
Head also said she does not believe Powell and the board are leading the district in the right direction. Since May, the P-16, a council with the goal of engaging members of the public in the happenings of the school district, has been inexplicably removed from the board agenda and told it must pay a $400 fee to hold its meeting in one of the district schools, according to emails between district officials and council members. It has also still not received data it requested from the district in May, according to Head.
“The problem (in the district) is not the staff, it’s not that the kids cannot learn. The problem we have is in the district office with the superintendent and the board of education,” said Head.
The school board hired Powell, a Holmes County native, in May of this year. She was a former principal in Missouri. This is her first district level position in her career.