Iftikhar Azeem, a physics teacher at Holmes County Central High School, reviews a lesson with students. Credit: Jackie Mader, The Hechinger Report

The fate of the Holmes County Consolidated School District now rests in the hands of Gov. Tate Reeves.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to request that Reeves immediately declare a state of extreme emergency in the district which would place it under state control. The current school superintendent would be replaced and the local school board would be abolished. The state board would serve in its place.

The State Board of Education also recommended Jennifer Wilson, the former superintendent of Greenwood School District, serve as interim superintendent for the district should a state of emergency be declared.

Except for Gov. Phil Bryant’s alternate approach to declaring a state of emergency in Jackson Public Schools in 2017, a governor has never declined to sign off on the state board’s recommendation. The state has placed schools in this model, which is now termed a “District of Transformation,” 20 times since since 1996.

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

The audit, which took place over the course of three months, 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.

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright spoke only once during the board’s five-hour-long meeting on Tuesday to clarify how the department came to this point.

“When audits are complete and we then sit down and look at the findings, we have a choice at that time. We can either make a recommendation to withdraw or reduce their accreditation status … but we can also look at data and say, ‘No, actually we really do believe a state of emergency exists,'” she explained. “… That is an option we take, a discussion that we have prior to making any type of recommendation.”

District officials like the newly appointed superintendent Debra Powell and Board President Louise Winters argued that the district was already working to correct the problems it had.

“We are not who that audit says we are. Not today,” Powell told the board. “We are doing things differently.”

But she did not manage to convince the department of this.

Board member Karen Elam asked Paula Vanderford, the department’s chief accountability officer, whether she saw different practices and policies under the new superintendent.

“Many of the reports indicate the practices that existed prior to this administration still exist,” replied Vanderford.

A declaration of a state of emergency in the district would mean the district’s accreditation could be withdrawn; an interim superintendent would be appointed and remain there until the district reaches a grade of C or higher for five years; the local school board would be temporarily disbanded; and the interim superintendent would work with district staff to correct all accreditation violations and raise student achievement.

If such a declaration occurs, officials from the Mississippi Department of Education will meet with administration, faculty and staff from the district, then with parents and community leaders during a series of evening meetings.

The board’s request for a proclamation expires Aug. 17.

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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.