The Holmes County Consolidated School District.

Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency in the troubled Holmes County Consolidated School District on the first day of the new school year and just hours after the district announced it was suing state officials in an attempt to block the takeover.  

Signed at 1:25 p.m. on Thursday, the declaration will immediately dismantle the school district. Interim superintendent Jennifer Wilson will take over, and the local school board will be disbanded. The State Board of Education will act as the district’s governing body.

“This isn’t a decision I take lightly nor one I make with any delight. Maintaining local control when possible is a foundational principle of conservative governance; however, the serious violations of state and federal law and accreditation standards, serious financial concerns, lack of internal controls, inappropriate standards of governance, inappropriate oversight by the Board, and the continued poor academic performance (among many other factors) no longer make that possible in the HCCSD,” Gov. Tate Reeves wrote on Twitter. 

“Ensuring Mississippi kids have access to a quality education will always be a top priority. This declaration of an extreme emergency situation within HCCSD will hopefully give the kids of this district a chance at success in life, because each one of them deserve(s) nothing less!” Reeves continued. 

This means the district, now termed a “District of Transformation,” now stands to lose its accreditation. School districts that lose accreditation are limited to participation in no more than half of the regular season of any athletic and extracurricular activities. The activities’ schedule will also not include the opening day of the season or any type of post-season participation, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. 

Cheerleading, drill and dance squads, speech and debate and other extracurricular groups can participate in district and state contests but are ineligible to receive ratings. 

Wilson, the interim superintendent, will remain there until the district reaches a grade of C or higher for five years; and the superintendent would work with district staff to correct all accreditation violations and raise student achievement. 

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. 

A request for comment from Clarence Webster, the attorney for the lawsuit filed by former superintendent Debra Powell and school board members, was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon. Powell was also not immediately available for comment.

The state’s calls for a takeover of the district come following the release of a nearly 400-page investigative audit of the district that found it in violation of 81% of the state’s accreditation standards. The audit also found violations of state and federal law, including nearly $1 million of questioned federal expenditures. 

The allegations include a dysfunctional school board and administration, improper spending, inaccurate record keeping and unlicensed teachers in the classroom. 

The state has placed a school district in a conservatorship 20 times since 1996; Holmes County is now the 21st. 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.