The Mississippi school district that District 209 Supt. James Henderson led just before coming to Proviso has been dismantled and taken over by the state, according to a report by nonprofit outlet Mississippi Today.
The news coming out of Mississippi, while distant, resonates within D209, which itself is only a few years removed from partial state oversight. D209 Board President Rodney Alexander, however, lambasted any connection between Holmes County and Proviso as overdrawn and simplistic.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, signed the declaration allowing the district to be dismantled and taken over on Aug. 5, Mississippi Today reported.
“Interim superintendent Jennifer Wilson will take over, and the local school board will be disbanded,” the outlet reported. “The State Board of Education will act as the district’s governing body.”
Reeves’ decision comes months after the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor, Shad White, released an audit of the Holmes County district that examined practices and policies in place while Henderson was superintendent. Henderson was at Holmes from June 2018 to July 2020.
In a statement released in December, White said that the audit “reveals widespread problems.”
For instance, on page 33 of the nearly 400-page audit report, state officials said Henderson failed to submit the fiscal year 2018 audit report by deadline and “failed to have a sound system of internal controls in place to ensure all assets were properly recorded according to the Financial Accounting Manual for Mississippi Public School Districts.”
The audit also found that the Holmes school district paid $4,200 for a party to celebrate a bond issue that didn’t pass and paid $14,000 to companies owned by Henderson’s relatives without proper disclosure to the board.
In December, Henderson disputed the auditors’ report with documentation of his own, explaining that some situations were exaggerated and mischaracterized.
For instance, Henderson said half of the $4,200 “was paid with funds raised by the community and half was paid for by the district,” according to previous Review reporting.
And addressing the contracts given to family members, Henderson said that since Holmes County is small, there are only two restaurants in town, one of which is owned by his sister.
Henderson said, despite the auditor’s reporting that the board didn’t know it was his sister’s business. “The president of the board told the auditors, ‘Oh no, we all know this family. We know his parents and his siblings.’ Yet, [the auditors] published what they published,” Henderson said.
According to Mississippi Today, the dismantling of the Holmes County school district means that the district is now a “District of Transformation,” and “stands to lose its accreditation.
“School districts that lose accreditation are limited to participation in no more than half of the regular season of any athletic and extracurricular activities,” the outlet reported. “The activities’ schedule will also not include the opening day of the season or any type of post-season participation, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.”
Extracurricular groups like cheerleading, drill and dance teams can participate in district and state competitions, but aren’t eligible to receive ratings, Mississippi Today explained.
State oversight in Proviso wasn’t nearly as drastic, but the state’s influence was real. For 10 years, the D209 school board had to share authority with a Financial Oversight Panel.
Unlike with the Holmes County school district, which was taken over involuntarily and whose board is currently suing the state to block the takeover, D209 invited state oversight after years of deficits, questionable contracts and uncontrolled spending, according to the description of a board member who served in the years just before 2009, when the oversight panel was established.
Now, with state oversight removed and Henderson fully in charge at D209, the situation in Holmes acquires renewed importance. That’s particularly the case in light of Supt. Henderson’s stated plans to overhaul board committees, including the one that oversees district finance.
On Tuesday, Alexander pushed back against claims that Holmes County has any relevance to Proviso, emphasizing that the state financial oversight is now a thing of the past.
“The FOP left in 2019, because it was time for them to go,” Alexander said. “They wanted a 5-year funded master facilities plan. We gave them that. They wanted a 5-year funded budget. We gave them that. This board ran on financial transparency and getting them out of here.”
Alexander dismissed the Mississippi audit report, saying that it doesn’t prove Henderson did anything illegal, only covers part of his time as superintendent in Holmes and speaks more to the school board’s actions than to the superintendent’s.
“Dr. Henderson can’t do anything legally by himself to ruin a district financially,” Alexander said. “It’s not possible, because the board has to approve everything. A lot of this is chasing rabbits, because people don’t understand how government works.
“I could care less what goes on in Holmes County,” Alexander said. “Henderson’s gotten us a $10 million surplus in under a year … Financially, we’re fine. We’re at an all-time high. Look at the man’s record since he’s been here. Let’s judge him on what he’s done here. We didn’t pay him in Holmes County.”