Mississippi school district files for temporary restraining order against state in effort to avoid takeover

Published 1:54 pm Thursday, August 5, 2021

A Mississippi school district facing the prospect of being taken over by the state has filed for a restraining order against state education leaders.

The Holmes County Consolidated School District filed the temporary restraining order Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

If granted, the restraining order would stop action by the governor to shut the district down per the school board’s recommendation.

On Tuesday, the Mississippi Board of Education voted unanimously 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.

A declaration from Reeves would allow the state Department of Education to appoint an interim superintendent and the current school board will be dissolved.

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.

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.

The governor had until August 17 to respond but Thursday’s court filing intercepts this process.

According to the court filing, the district and board members filed an emergency temporary restraining order based on the following:

  • Petitioners did not receive a fair and impartial hearing, which violates the Petitioner’s due-process rights.
  • The statute upon which the Respondents acted is unconstitutional in that it fails to establish a standard of proof in advance of the hearings at issue in this lawsuit, which deprived Petitioners of due process.
  • There is a substantial threat Petitioners will suffer irreparable injury if the temporary restraining order is denied as Petitioners will have no other remedy at law to protect their due-process rights once the Governor accepts the recommendation to dissolve the Holmes County Consolidated School District.
  • The threatened injury to Petitioners outweighs any damage that the temporary restraining order will cause Respondents. If the relief is granted, Respondents will suffer no harm. Meanwhile, if the requested relief is denied, Petitioners will be irreparable injured as set forth above.
  • The temporary restraining order will not disserve the public interest. Ultimately, the public interest is best served when the law is followed, including constitutional protections afforded under the Due Process Clause.
  • Should the Court choose to exercise its discretion, Petitioners welcome the opportunity to file a memorandum brief in support of the relief.