The Mississippi Department of Education is recommending that the Carroll County School District be put on probation for violating a dozen state regulations, including reporting inaccurate payroll information to the state and board interference in the district’s day-to-day operations.
MDE’s findings, contained in a 31-page report, were hand-delivered last week to Billy Joe Ferguson, the district’s outgoing superintendent, and Kenneth DeLoach, the board president.
“I hope and pray that they don’t put us on probation and penalize the children of Carroll County,” said Ferguson Wednesday, adding that while there may have been some technical errors made by the district, most of the alleged violations can be explained away.
MDE conducted a “limited on-site investigative audit” of the 900-student district from June 11 to Aug. 26, during which auditors pored over the district’s records, interviewed board members and staff, and observed board meetings. MDE’s probe, Ferguson believes, was a spinoff of a preliminary investigation earlier this year by the Legislature’s watchdog group, the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee.
In a letter dated Aug. 27, Jo Ann Malone, executive director of MDE’s Office of Accreditation, said the district had until Sept. 27 to verify compliance with the regulations in question. Malone said that the audit’s findings will be presented on Oct. 3 to the Commission on School Accreditation.
The district will respond to the audit, Ferguson said.
“There’s an explanation for almost everything in that thing.”
The report takes both administrators and board members to task.
It says that Ferguson and school principals “failed to ensure that all data reported to the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) are true and accurate.” In particular, the auditors found discrepancies between salaries reported for some personnel and the district’s own pay scales. It said that the district does not have an administrative salary scale and misclassified its former security director, Anjuan Brown, as working in “Public Relations/Information.”
Ferguson said some of the findings are based on miscommunication with the auditors. He said it was also unfair of MDE to conduct its investigation in the summer when the district operates with a skeleton staff. Even when he’s fully staffed, Ferguson said, there just aren’t that many bodies in administration to tend to every detail that MDE expects.
“I don’t have help to do a lot of the things we really need to do because of financial reasons,” he said.
The report is particularly critical of the seemingly dysfunctional relationship between Ferguson and the school board and among the school board members themselves.
“Board members clearly do not trust each other,” it said.
Ferguson’s 20-year tenure as school superintendent will end in December, when the district, as dictated by state law, moves from an elected superintendent to an appointed one. The school board has for months been working unsuccessfully to hire a superintendent. It voted earlier this year to not give the job to Ferguson. At least one candidate for superintendent has turned down the offer of employment at the district, which currently has a D accountability rating on the state’s A-to-F scale.
The report says the school board routinely oversteps its boundaries and attempts to assume management duties that are the responsibility of the superintendent and his staff.
The auditors are particularly critical of one board member who they say “is engaged in the day-to-day operations of the District and acting outside of the role as prescribed by law.”
Although the report does not name the board member, it refers to a Taxpayers Channel video of a Jan. 14, 2019, meeting as examples of the board member’s alleged misconduct. In that video, District 2 board member Donnie Wiltshire, who has frequently butted heads with Ferguson, unsuccessfully tries to regulate the use of the district’s vehicles and direct where to cut overtime.
The report says the unnamed board member “routinely visits the schools and District offices, demands personnel records and other information from employees, and discusses school matters with school and District staff.”
It said the board member during the administering of state tests in a previous school year entered a school and interrupted teachers. It also claimed that when the father of a teacher contacted this board member to complain about a conflict his daughter was having with a principal, the board member “conducted his own investigation which included going to the school and interviewing staff members.” It said in a four-day span earlier this year, the board called two special meetings to discuss the principal, whom the Commonwealth independently verified as Marshall Elementary’s Fletcher Harges. At the first meeting, Harges’ contract was not renewed; then at the second, the board reversed its decision and let him resign.
Harges now works as the principal at Greenwood High School.
When contacted Wednesday, Wiltshire said that he does not know whether the report is referring to him, but if it is, at least parts of it are erroneous.
“If they’re talking about me, that’s a lie,” Wiltshire said of the alleged probe into the teacher-principal conflict. “I didn’t conduct no investigation.”
When pressed further about other findings in the audit, Wiltshire declined to comment.
“The board attorney said don’t discuss it with anybody, so that’s what I’m going to have to do,” he said shortly before hanging up.
MDE auditors also raised concerns over whether the school board is violating the state’s Open Meetings Act by not announcing, without prompting by its attorney, its reasons for going into executive session, and not announcing what, if any, actions are taken during these closed-door sessions. The auditors cited a special-called meeting that they believe the board conducted on July 1 without notice, even though it allegedly occurred during the time that the auditors were trying to personally observe board proceedings.
Ferguson, 71, said that he does not want his tenure as superintendent to end with a black mark against the school district to which he has devoted most of his adult life.
“I want to finish well. I don’t want to go out under these circumstances,” he said.