Hinds County judge blocks state takeover of LeFlore County schools

Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd. (AP file photo)
Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd. (AP file photo)

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd has blocked the state’s takeover of the Leflore County school district.

Kidd ruled Monday that the district is owed a formal hearing before the state can depose the current superintendent and school board.

The state has said it used another section of state law and no formal hearing was required before the governor declared a state of emergency. Gov. Phil Bryant declared an emergency in Leflore County Sept. 17, the same day Kidd first stepped in.

Monday’s order makes Kidd’s ruling permanent, saying that the district should get a chance to put on evidence and question the state’s witnesses before the School Accreditation Commission, a body that makes recommendations to the state Board of Education.

“This court finds that the Leflore County school district is entitled to a hearing before the Commission on School Accreditation,” Kidd wrote. “Such hearing is a requirement before the Board of Education is allowed to make a request that a state of emergency be declared in the school district.”

Kidd added, though, that he can’t question an emergency declaration by Bryant. The judge said he can only make sure the procedural steps are followed before the governor acts.

Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood, said she wasn’t immediately able to comment. The Department of Education referred comment to Hood’s office.

Shemeka Collins, president of the Leflore County School Board, told the Greenwood Commonwealth earlier Monday that she had been “on pins and needles the whole weekend” awaiting Kidd’s decision. She was gratified to hear that he had ruled in the school board’s favor.

“Now we have a chance to get back on track,” she said. “What we have to do as a board is to start working diligently to get these test scores up.”

In a state takeover, Collins and the other four school board members would be removed and barred from ever serving again after a district is returned to local control. Superintendent Viola Williams McCaskill’s elected post is usually permanently changed to an appointed post.

It’s unclear what happens next, or whether the ruling could affect the state’s Sept. 17 takeover of the Claiborne County district. That district had a hearing before the commission, but alleges it was due an additional one. It too filed suit in Hinds County Circuit Court, but that suit was rejected. Former Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Jayne Sargent, who was named conservator in Claiborne County, has taken the reins there.

It’s also unclear whether the ruling could create room for lawsuits from any other districts the state is currently running. The state currently controls seven districts: Aberdeen, Sunflower-Drew, Indianola, Oktibbeha County, North Panola, Hazlehurst and Tate County. The state is moving to return the latter three to local control.

Under current law, any district taken over by the state also would lose accreditation, meaning districts can play only half their regular-season high school athletic games and can’t participate in playoffs. It does not affect a high school student’s chance of being admitted into college.

Oktibbeha County is the only district currently without accreditation. The other six districts were taken over before the law was changed.