The Montgomery County School District along with four of the district’s parents filed a lawsuit this past weekend asking for injunctive relief from the July 1, 2018, district consolidation of Montgomery County Schools and Winona Separate School District. The suit argues that the consolidation statute – Mississippi Code 37-7-104.4 – is unconstitutional and a violation of civil rights to those living outside the Winona city limits.
“We are asking injunctive relief in the short term to address the actions the Winona School District is taking on the consolidation,” Chynee A. Bailey, attorney for the Montgomery County School District, said.
Defendants in the suit are Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, State Superintendent Carey M. Wright and the Mississippi state board of education, and, in an amended version of the suit filed Sunday, the Winona Municipal Separate School Board.
According to the suit, the defendants claim the Mississippi Legislature’s “failure to give the residents of Montgomery County who reside outside of the city limits any representation on the board of the consolidated school district from the effective date of consolidation which is July 1, 2018, until January 1, 2019.”
The suit claims the make-up of the consolidated district’s board by the Legislature – three members appointed by the Winona Board of Aldermen and two positions elected from two county districts -- was decided using an “odd motive-suspicious method.”
In addition, the suit questions the consolidation statute’s dictating that the current Winona Separate School District board serve as the board of the consolidated district during that six month span, and that board “will select the superintendent, hire all employees, and prepare a budget for the consolidated school for the 2018-2019 school year.”
The suit lists three cause of actions that make the consolidation bill unconstitutional. First, the suit claims the statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, “disenfranchises the citizens of Montgomery County who reside outside the Winona city limits from participating in the election process” for the first six months.
In addition, the suit claims that the statute causes “vote dilution” in regards to the Voting Rights Act, stating that Winona only has 43 percent of the county’s population but has a majority of members on the consolidated school board.
Because Montgomery County School District is still under a Plan of Desegregation, which dictates some mandates in regards to faculty and administrators hired in the district, the suit states that the consolidation bill violates that plan.
Bailey said the lawsuit seeks two things – to prove that the consolidation statute is unconstitutional and to provide injunctive relief to stop the Winona School Board from taking any action in the consolidation effort – including the hiring of a new superintendent – until the issues of the suit are resolved.
“The concern is [the Winona School Board] may not be taking the interests of all children in Montgomery County into consideration,” Bailey said.
Bailey also said the Montgomery County School Board wants to safeguard the educational interests of its current student body throughout the consolidation process.
“The existing composition of the Winona Montgomery Consolidated School Board neglects to do this,” Bailey said.
Winona Separate School District Attorney Lane Greenlee stated that the Winona School Board will abide by the instructions given by the state board of education.
“The Winona Separate School District Board will continue to follow the directives of the Mississippi State Board of Education until such time as they are ordered to do otherwise,” Greenlee said in a statement.
The suit claims that the Winona School Board “without any statutory authority,” began conducting official board meetings since September to discuss various items about the consolidation, including the advertisement and discussion of a new superintendent of the consolidated district.
That claim is echoed from a November 14 meeting of the Winona Separate School District’s board to discuss the consolidation. At that meeting, several dozen school board members, administrators, teachers, and supports attended and questioned the board’s authority to seek a superintendent for the consolidated school district.
At that meeting, Greenlee explained that the Winona School Board is following the orders of Mike Kent, who is facilitating the consolidation for the Mississippi Department of Education. Montgomery County representatives stated that Kent has not been in contact with the Montgomery County School District and has not communicated the Winona School Board’s authority in making decisions for the future consolidated school district.
Greenlee stated that the authority was given by the Mississippi Board of Education’s interpretation of the bill.
In regards to the suit, Greenlee rebuffed the suit’s claim that the Winona Separate School District is in “dire financial straits, recently requesting one million dollars from the City of Winona to fund its operation for the 2017-2018 school year.”
Greenlee stated, “In response to the Amended Complaint filed against it and the other Defendants by the Montgomery County School District and others, let it be known that the Winona School District is not in financial difficulty, and it did not request the consolidation with the Montgomery County School District.”