Mississippi closer to takeover of Holmes County schools

Published 4:41 am Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Mississippi Board of Education is recommending that the state take control of the Holmes County Consolidated School District after an audit showed longstanding problems with financial management, academic achievement and student safety.

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to ask Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to declare a state of emergency in the district, which has about 2,500 students and is in one of the poorest parts of Mississippi. Classes there are set to begin Thursday.

If Reeves makes the declaration, the state Department of Education will appoint an interim superintendent and the current school board will be dissolved.

Reeves spokeswoman Bailey Martin said Tuesday that the governor will review the department’s report before deciding what to do.

The state Department of Education conducted an onsite investigative audit of the Holmes County schools from April 27 to July 23.

The Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation said Monday that an “extreme emergency” exists because of multiple problems found during the audit. Academic problems included use of curriculum that does not meet state standards and failure to identify students who need special education services. Safety problems included allowing kindergartners to use broken playground equipment.

During a hearing that lasted more than three hours Tuesday, Holmes County school board president Louise Winters said the state audit was “demeaning and mean-spirited.”

The current Holmes County superintendent, Debra Powell, acknowledged problems that existed before she was hired May 17 and said she has been working to make improvements.

“We are not who we used to be,” Powell said. “We have the right people in place.”

Joe Goff, the top attorney for the state Department of Education, argued for the state takeover. He told the state board that the children and families of Holmes County have been damaged by the way the school district is run.

“Folks, they have failed these students from kindergarten to 12th grade,” Goff said.

The most recent state report card, for the 2019-20 year, showed two of Holmes County’s six schools had a rating of F, and the other four had a rating of D. If the state takes over the district, an interim superintendent will remain on the job until the district has a grade of at least C for at least five years.

Holmes County has a population of about 17,000, down from about 19,000 in 2010. The Census Bureau says 33.8% of Holmes County residents live in poverty. That compares to Mississippi’s poverty rate of 19.6% and the national rate of 10.5%.