The Holmes County Consolidated School District is at risk of state takeover.

The Holmes County Consolidated School District is one step closer to being taken over by the state.

The state education department’s accreditation commission voted unanimously on Monday to recommend that a state of emergency, or a situation that threatens the safety, security and educational interests of students, exists in the school district. 

The matter will now go to the State Board of Education, which will meet Tuesday to determine whether it will recommend the governor declare the need for a takeover. 

The Mississippi Department of Education and the school district on Monday made presentations and answered questions to the commission. 

Debra Powell, the superintendent of the district as of mid-May, argued that she is already implementing solutions to many of the issues highlighted in a nearly 400-page audit by the Mississippi Department of Education. The report found the district in violation of 81% of state accreditation standards for schools.

“Most of it (the findings) is actually accurate,” said Powell. “That’s why the board, in its wisdom, decided to chart a new course and change directions. We have some good things that are happening in Holmes County despite that audit.”

She said she started looking at the problems in the district on “day one” as superintendent.

“Why interrupt the progress we’ve made? We’re doing the same things (a conservator or interim superintendent) would do,” said Powell. “We have qualified, capable people who are working.”

Powell and the district’s attorney Clarence Webster argued that the actual emergency existed in 2019 and 2020 when the finances were in shambles, and when the high school “turned into a virtual fight club” last school year during the pandemic.

But the state education department said the district was, and still is, in violation of all nine accreditation policies, or governing principles for the success of a school district academically, organizationally and financially. 

Failure to comply with just one is a condition for withdrawal of a school district’s accreditation, Paula Vanderford, chief accountability officer, said. 

For example, Vanderford pointed out that the district’s textbooks were outdated, with some students using books from 1997.

Powell said new textbooks had been ordered and that the district was transition to a digital curriculum, but Felicia Gavin, the chief of operations for the department, said there was no evidence those materials had been purchased.

An investigative audit of the district found its finances in disarray, including bank accounts that aren’t reconciled, attempts to purchase “high dollar assets” such as a vehicle for the superintendent without going through proper protocols, and nearly $1 million in questioned federal funds. 

Vanderford also informed the commission of the F-rated district’s “pattern of poor academic performance” since 2014. 

In 2019, the last year for which testing data is available, the district ranked in the bottom five percent of districts in both reading and math proficiency. It also had the lowest science proficiency rating in the state.

Joe Goff, general counsel for the Mississippi Department of Education, described the findings about students with disabilities not being properly identified and given the services they need as “heartbreaking.” 

If the governor declares a state of emergency in Holmes County, the State Board of Education will become the governing body of the school district. The local school board will be temporarily disbanded, and an interim superintendent will be 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, as they are referred to, include the Tunica and Noxubee County School Districts. 

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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.