CLEVELAND — On the first day of school this year, seven of the eight school buildings in the district here didn’t have working air conditioning, leading multiple classes to be conducted simultaneously in the auditorium as parts of the building reached temperatures in the 80s.
The recent infrastructure problems have driven the community frustration in Cleveland into overdrive. Parents have been expressing their discontent with the school conditions and leadership for multiple years, a rift that parents say has grown since the consolidation of the district’s majority Black schools and historically white schools in 2017.
Mississippi Today spoke to nearly a dozen parents and former employees who say this failure is the latest in a series of problems created by mismanagement and lack of communication.
The district’s superintendent says he’s aware of the community’s complaints, but many of the problems are bigger than he alone can fix, and also questions whether others’ issues are racially motivated.
At a community meeting on Aug. 25, Superintendent Otha Belcher fielded questions from a heated crowd. Parents pressed him for solutions to the district’s infrastructure woes and ways to address the declining enrollment, problems Belcher said his team is actively working to address. Parents repeatedly said that they wanted “less talk and more action.”
At the community meeting, Belcher said HVAC renovations have been on the books for months in the district’s plans to spend pandemic relief funds, but have been generally delayed by supply issues and became more urgent when several units quit completely. Portable units are currently in place in every classroom without air, according to Belcher.
“It’s so embarrassing and it’s just such a stain on our town and community that we can’t even take an entire summer … to get this figured out and get children in our buildings with air conditioning and food,” said Todd Davis, president of the Bell Academy Booster Club.
The air conditioning issues have also compounded problems for meals served by the schools. Child Nutrition Director Shenika Newsom said at the meeting that when the high school’s kitchen was without air conditioning they drove meals over in vans for a few days from the middle school, but regular cafeteria service has since resumed. She said supply chain issues will continue to cause meal substitutions and changes to menus.
“This is not something we want to do, but something we have to do,” she said.
Steven Chudy, a parent at the community meeting, called the HVAC renovations a waste of taxpayer dollars and compared them to “putting lipstick on a pig,” instead saying that the district should be focusing its efforts on building new facilities.
“I’m getting blamed for something that happened 40 years ago,” Belcher told Mississippi Today, referencing the district’s long-running infrastructures woes. “Do we need new buildings? In my opinion that’s the largest issue, everyone wants new buildings, but that takes a lot of money.”
Belcher said that while he agrees infrastructure is an issue, these problems exist across the Delta as the area sees population decline.
“If people are leaving, that means children are leaving,” he said. “It’s not just aimed at the Cleveland School District, it’s everywhere.”
While enrollment numbers are not yet available for the new school year, the Cleveland School District has seen a relatively steady decline in enrollment over the last 10 years according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education. The annual decline of about 3% is steeper than the statewide average but similar to other school districts in the Delta.
The percent of teachers leaving the district was 11% higher than the state average, reaching 28% at the end of the 2020-21 school year. This was an increase from prior years when the percent of teachers leaving the district hovered between 20-24%.
Multiple parents have questioned Belcher’s leadership in the district more broadly, an accusation that he says is racially motivated.
“I have been called so many racial names, I’ve had three cars vandalized, I’ve had all these phone calls, people delivering things to my house, and I don’t ever say a word,” he said. “There is a lot going about racial stuff but I keep pushing through it because it’s not about me, it’s about the kids.”
He added that no matter who serves in his position, he does not believe the community will see the change they are looking for without first coming together.
Jennifer Adams Williams moved to Cleveland because her husband’s family is native to the area and said the district is “unlike anything she has ever seen.”
Her older daughter, a student at Cleveland Central High School, had been a part of the STAR program, an academic enrichment program, in elementary and middle school but was disappointed to discover a lack of advanced classes at the high school to continue to be challenged. Williams also expressed frustration with the district for discontinuing the STAR program altogether.
“To hear that they’ve taken it away, it’s like you’re working against your own self-interest,” she said.
She took issue with the building conditions and meal issues as well, saying they would have already moved if not for her husband’s family and her daughter’s desire to graduate with her friends.
“We’re really trying to get things together because my hope is that our younger children don’t have to deal with what I’ve seen these children go through,” Williams said.
Additional parents echoed this sentiment, saying their children have enjoyed the community at the high school but are concerned that they are not getting what they need to be adequately prepared for college.
Christie Coker Tolbert said her major issue with the district was the unaddressed bullying.
“There’s supposed to be this huge no bullying, zero tolerance, but it seemed like if not every day then every other day (my daughter) was getting threats on her life,” Tolbert said.
She said she was unhappy with the way the district handled the bullying incidents and how they notified her about it. Her daughter, now in third grade, has since left the district for private school.
Other parents told Mississippi Today they are dissatisfied with the care provided for their special needs children, both in terms of classroom instruction and handling of bullying. They raised concerns about what they say is a lack of communication from administrators and verbal bullying by students and teachers, to the point that their children were hiding from teachers in the building or didn’t know their teacher’s name to ask for help.
Belcher said that there had not previously been a procedure to handle bullying before he arrived in the district, but that he felt the principals had successfully implemented the policy that was developed. According to the district’s online policy directory, there are two bullying policies, one adopted in June 2014 before the superintendent joined the district and one from July 2021.
When pressed about bullying against special needs students specifically, Belcher said he was not aware of any issues.
“We haven’t heard any of that,” he said. “Usually if there’s a complaint of that nature and the district hasn’t handled it, it goes directly to (the Mississippi Department of Education) because that parent will go to MDE quick. But I haven’t been informed of anyone that’s complaining. Again, if you know some names please give them to me so that we can contact them.”
LaDonne Sterling, a parent in attendance at the community meeting, said she thinks pressure should be focused on the school board rather than the superintendent, but he should be working to make himself more visible in the community.
“I think that he’s trying because I work in a district where the air conditioning is out,” she said. “Everybody is short staffed … Overall I wouldn’t know where to take my kids because things are happening everywhere.”
Clarification 9/6/22: This story has been updated to clarify when the district put a bullying policy in place.