An audit in Holmes County

Opinion: Editorials

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When we first met James Henderson, the new superintendent of Proviso Township High School District 209, he was quick to tell us that his previous job, in his home county in Mississippi, "was the poorest county in the poorest state in America."

He didn't happen to mention it might also have been among the most poorly run school districts in America. That's the reasonable conclusion one would reach when reading the audit report on the Holmes County School Department, produced this month  by the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor.

The audit covers the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020. It is extremely harsh.

"This audit reveals widespread problems. The public school students of Holmes County and the taxpayers are the victims here," reads the press release from Shad White, who heads that office.

The audit reports a wide array of failings on the part of the school administration and its school board. Our reporting today focuses on the district spending $4,200 for a pre-celebration of a bond referendum that did not actually receive voters' OK. There is the conflict between district board minutes, which report that Henderson would be paid $160,000 while under a signed contract, when he was actually paid $170,000. Then there is the $14,000 that was paid to two local businesses, each owned by a Henderson sibling.

"These are really bad business practices," a spokesman for the auditor told the Review. "Comparatively and objectively, it's bad. [These are] not routine findings."

The superintendent has his explanations and those are reported in our news coverage.

We find his explanations lacking. We find these documented faults in Mississippi consistent with questions that have been raised about his performance in other districts as he has hop-scotched his way toward our fragile school district.

The Proviso High Schools have made a genuine comeback in recent years, having fallen into dismal circumstances in academics, in finances, in upkeep of aging facilities, in a pervasive culture of failure. The comeback came through strong leadership by a reform-minded school board, under the leadership of a now departed superintendent.

Further progress is not assured. An unraveling of key accomplishments is entirely possible.

Honestly, we do not see what this school board saw in Dr. James Henderson. Please prove us wrong. Meanwhile, it is our intention to keep a sharp eye on both this superintendent and this school board.

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