The Holmes County Consolidated School District is facing a potential state takeover. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

The state education department will consider a takeover of the Holmes County Consolidated School District following an investigation that found the district in violation of 81% of state accreditation standards for schools.

The results of the nearly 400-page audit include allegations of a dysfunctional school board and administration, improper spending, inaccurate record keeping and unlicensed teachers in the classroom. 

The audit, which was conducted from April to July of this year, also repeatedly refers to a lack of accurate data provided by the district, making it impossible to assess some standards or to determine the degree to which the district was noncompliant in others. 

But Debra Powell, the district’s new superintendent, said she has already begun righting the ship since being hired in May.

District officials stated in a press release that Powell has done major restructuring at both the district and school level. It also included an attachment to a 30-page internal audit of the same standards done by the department. 

“Dr. Powell credits her team’s success to a school board that is supportive of change. It is the Board’s desire to make Holmes County Consolidated School District one of the best in the country,” the release stated. “We believe we now have the team of experts to make it a reality.” 

Powell has never held a district-level position before but has touted her experience as mayor of East St. Louis.

“When people were saying that I didn’t have any experience being a superintendent, I tell them all the time that yes, I do. It was called ‘mayor.’ It’s the same thing,” Powell told Mississippi Today. “Being the mayor and superintendent is managing — putting the right people in the right place.”

The Mississippi Department of Education’s investigative audit came after a scathing report from the state auditor’s office in 2019 that found “widespread problems” in the district, which has had four superintendents in three years. Findings included a lack of background checks for employees and misappropriation of funds, including the use of funds to host a “Bring Your Own Beverage (BYOB),” adults-only event. 

The department subsequently appointed a financial adviser to oversee the district’s finances. 

The audit also refers to the recent promotion of Powell’s daughter from a $47,000-a-year position to the director of technology, a district-level job with an annual salary of $82,920. 

“This action was taken after the Office of the State Auditor cited the Board in the District’s FY19 audit report for other instances of nepotism violating (state law) related to the hiring of family members of the former superintendent,” the Department’s audit said. 

Powell told Mississippi Today that she had nothing to do with the hiring of her daughter, and she made the decision when hired to cancel the district’s technology contract with an outside vendor and bring it back in-house. 

“We had nobody to regulate and watch over our technology department … so we created a position, we had three (internal) candidates and two external candidates” for the job, Powell said. “I had nothing to do with the job description. I steered clear.”

She said when the interviews for the position took place, she left the district campus. 

“Just because I’m the superintendent does not mean you thwart a person’s ability to move – you just make sure that process is fair for everyone,” she said. 

The matter has been referred to the Mississippi Ethics Commission, according to the state education department’s audit.

Powell also refuted the findings that said the school board interferes in the daily operations of the district — including that the board president attended an administrators’ meeting on May 21.

Powell said Louise Winters, the board president, was there only to observe. 

“She was observing the administrators’ meeting to see how I acted with the staff” as part of the board’s evaluation of her, Powell said. “She didn’t say a word.”  

The department’s Commission on School Accreditation will meet on Monday to decide whether it will recommend that a state of emergency exists in the district. A state of emergency exists when the safety, security and educational interests of students are threatened.

If the commission makes that recommendation, the State Board of Education will hold a special called meeting to determine whether it will recommend that the governor declare a state of emergency in Holmes County schools. 

When the governor declares a state of emergency in a school district, the State Board of Education becomes the governing body of the school district, referred to as a “District of Transformation.” The local school board is temporarily disbanded and an interim superintendent is appointed to lead the district until it sustains an accountability rating of C or higher over multiple years. 

The state has placed a school district in a conservatorship 20 times since 1997. Current Districts of Transformation include the Tunica and Noxubee County School Districts. 

Powell hopes state officials will see she is the right leader to correct the district’s shortcomings.

“I’m feeling hopeful that we will get a fair opportunity to show we are headed in the right direction,” said Powell of the upcoming hearing.

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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.