JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — With leaders of an eastern Mississippi school district themselves admitting they won't be able to pay their bills by August, the state took the first step Wednesday toward taking the schools over.
The state Commission on School Accreditation voted unanimously to recommend that the state declare an emergency in the Noxubee County school district, although district leaders asked for more time fix problems.
"In our district, there is learning occurring. We're serving boys and girls, just like any other boys and girls across the state who deserve a great education. But it takes time," Superintendent Roger Liddell said, arguing that academic performance in the F-rated school district was improving.
That recommendation moves forward for another hearing Thursday before the state Board of Education. If the board approves, Gov. Phil Bryant would have to sign an emergency declaration dissolving the school board and removing Liddell. An interim superintendent appointed by the board would run the school without a local school board. The state currently controls the Leflore County and Tunica County school districts under such arrangements.
State officials say they began examining the 1,600-student district when Noxubee officials called to seek a loan, citing cash flow problems. The resulting state report found lots of other problems, with a Mississippi Department of Education report finding Noxubee schools violate 26 of 32 state accrediting standards. The district asked to have until March 2019 to fix those problems, but it's unclear how the school system would survive financially in coming months if it received more time.
"This district has excuses, but today, they remain in serious noncompliance," Assistant Attorney General Erin Meyer argued on behalf of the state.
Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford said the state can only loan the Noxubee school system money if Bryant declares a state of emergency.
Vanderford said after the meeting that financial problems alone would be enough for the state to take over, but noted the state found widespread problems. They include allegations that:
— Nearly 30 percent of teachers worked last year without licenses or taught outside their licensed field, with questions about whether criminal background checks were being performed on any employees.
— Poor record-keeping allowed 24 seniors to graduate this spring without their records showing they had passed required courses or tests.
— School board members improperly interfered in the day-to-day operations of the school.
— The superintendent told staff members to falsify records, managed through fear and intimidation and overturned disciplinary decisions made by principals and other employees.
— The district failed to prepare federally required individualized education plans for some special education students or prepared deeply deficient plans.
— The district hasn't had a completed financial audit since the 2015 budget year.
— The district couldn't lock all its school doors in case of an emergency and is teaching prekindergarten classes in an unsecured area that also houses the district's central office.