State audit of D209 supt.'s last district shows 'widespread problems'

'Comparatively and objectively, it's bad,' says Mississippi audit rep

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By Maria Maxham

A Dec. 14 press release from the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor, Shad White, listed problems with the annual audit of the Holmes County School Department, where District 209's new superintendent, James Henderson, worked just prior to making the move to Illinois.

The audit was "for the year ended June 30, 2020," which covered the time during which Henderson was employed by the Holmes County Consolidated School District.

In the release, White said, "This audit reveals widespread problems. The public school students of Holmes County and the taxpayers are the victims here. As a product of public schools myself, my office remains committed to uncovering and stopping this sort of misspending."

Logan Reeves, media relations spokesperson for the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor, spoke to the Review on Dec. 21 about the audit. Reeves said the very fact that the auditor's office sent out a press release is significant.

"These are really bad business practices," said Reeves. "Comparatively and objectively, it's bad." He added these are "not routine findings."

The press release listed what the auditors considered "notable findings," including the following: 

  • The district paying more than $4,200 for a party to celebrate passage of a bond issue ultimately not passed by voters in Holmes County. The party was described as a celebration for parents, an "adults only" event to which people were invited to bring their own alcoholic beverage of choice.
  • Meeting minutes revealed that the board voted to give Henderson a salary of $160,000. However, he was paid $170,000 annually and reimbursed for relocation expenses in excess of legal limits.
  • Payments for purchases totaling $14,000 were made to companies owned by Henderson's relatives without proper disclosure to the board. This matter will be further investigated by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

 On Dec. 15, the Review spoke about the audit with Henderson.

 The 'BYOB' party

In regard to the $4,200 party, Henderson said the party was in "celebration" of the passage of a bond issue. This was an $18.4 million bond issue to rebuild three schools and implement necessary infrastructure repairs, put to referendum and ultimately not passed during the election on Nov. 5, 2019.

The party was on Nov. 2. Henderson later said it said it was a "get-out-the-vote" celebration, and an additional community engagement movie night for students was provided as well. The flyer itself says it's an event "Celebrating Passage of the 2019 School Bond Referendum."

The $4,200 mentioned in the audit, Henderson said, was spent on food for the community. Half of the $4,200 was paid with funds raised by the community and half was paid for by the district.

The audit report mentioned only the total amount, however, calling it a "misappropriation of public funds" due to "inadequate controls surrounding the district's expenses."

It was, suggested the report, the responsibility of the superintendent, since, according to the Mississippi Public School Accountability Standards, the "School Board assigns all executive and administrative duties to the Superintendent, who is properly licensed and chosen in the matter prescribed by law."

Henderson said he was bothered by the phrase "bring your own bottle," which was how the state auditor, he said, described the event.

"And it's how they painted that," Henderson said in an interview. "And this was not the news reporters in Mississippi; this was the state auditor. You know, and so yes, I had a problem with that."

"BYOB was not on the flyer," Henderson said emphatically. "We did create a flyer, but we did not have 'bring your own bottle.'

He sent the Review a copy of the flyer. It reads, "Bring lawn chairs and your preferred beverage."

In a Dec. 15 Facebook post, Shad White, the Mississippi state auditor, said the audit "showed the administration of a poor school district spent thousands on a BYOY 'adults only' party." And in an interview with the Review when he first got the position in D209, Henderson himself said Holmes County is the "poorest county in the poorest state in America."

Rev. Anthony Anderson, president of the Holmes County Consolidated School District, told the Review on Dec. 21 that the board never approved anything for purchase or any amount to be spent in regard to the party. They also never approved the flyer, Anderson said.

"Henderson informed the board about the celebration," Anderson said.

Contract amount disparity

Henderson said his contract was in the amount of $170,000 for both years he was employed by the district, and he had no explanation for why the board voted on $160,000 but the contract was in a different amount. He provided the Review with a photocopy of his contract showing the $170,000 salary.

The auditor's report recommended that the school district ensure all salaries are paid according to contracts approved by the board. Additionally, the state audit report recommends that Henderson repay the district $20,000 within 30 days for the additional amount he received that was never approved by the board.

Henderson said, however, that since his contract was in the amount of $170,000, he did nothing wrong and there is nothing for him to repay to the district.

According to Reeves, "It's a great question" why meeting minutes showed one amount and the contract another. "Boards and commissions speak through their minutes," Reeves said. "For whatever reason, the contract was different. As far as the audit was concerned, the minutes said something and the contract something else. There is very clearly a problem with the business practices."

Anderson, however, said that during a meeting, a motion was made for a contract in the amount of $160,000 for Henderson's salary. Holmes County School Board attorneys, who had been in negotiation with Henderson over the final amount, brought a new salary back to the board. That final number was voted on in closed session.

Anderson acknowledged that the minutes from the closed session were included in the minutes received by state auditors. "But maybe they were on separate pages," Anderson said. "Maybe they overlooked something." 

Moving expenses

Henderson and/or the board were also asked to reimburse the district for $8,000 in moving expenses that he was overpaid by the district, which puts a $1,000 cap on moving expenses. He was given $9,000.

In the audit report, the district referred to a 2018 attorney general opinion stating that an agency can pay moving expenses "as long as the original contract of employment included those expenses as part of the compensation package." The district pointed out that Henderson's contract specifically provided for $9,000 in expenses to move to the district.

State auditors, however, said that applies only to state employees and not to the district's superintendent.

Anderson said the contract negotiation was handled by district attorney Ben Piazza. "Maybe he wasn't paying attention," Anderson said. "We were given the contract, and we voted to approve it."

Contracts given to family members

Auditors noted that Henderson's relatives "were not disclosed on his related party questionnaire or within the District's Board minutes." District purchases totaling $8,000 were made to Henderson's sister's catering business, and $6,000 to his brother-in-law's charter bus services.

"Their relationship was not disclosed to the Board," reads the audit report, with the matter being turned over to the Mississippi Department of Ethics for review.

In its official response to this finding, the district said it "acknowledges this finding and will implement procedures to ensure that compliance is met on a timely basis." Additional training will be provided to board and staff members on nepotism and ethics.

When the Review asked Henderson if contracts had been awarded to family members, he said, "That is true. That is true."

But he added that there are only two restaurants in Holmes County, Mississippi. "It's a small city … so everybody knows everybody." His sister's restaurant, which provided monthly meals for the board meetings, was one of the two restaurants in town.

Henderson said he takes issue with the audit saying the board didn't know it was his sister's business.

"Everyone knows the Henderson family," he said. "Because we're the second largest family in the area."

Additionally, said Henderson, "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."

Anderson expressed a similar sentiment. "Everybody knows everybody in Holmes County. We don't meet strangers," Anderson said in an interview.

Anderson said during lengthy work sessions, it wasn't uncommon for the board to order food. Usually, he said, it had been Subway sandwiches.

When Henderson became superintendent, he brought in some free food and asked the board what they thought of it.

"We liked it fine," said Anderson, at which point Henderson revealed it was food from his sister's restaurant.

"Henderson said he can't just eat anyone's cooking," Anderson said. So arrangements were made to order food from his sister's place for future meetings.

The district's official response, provided on the final audit report, states that, "The District acknowledges this finding and will implement procedures to ensure that compliance is met on a timely basis." Additionally, nepotism and ethics statute training for the board and financial staff will take place.

The full auditor's report is available online at tinyurl.com/y74v7o3c.

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Reader Comments

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William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 28th, 2020 12:03 PM

Meet the new bosses, same as the Melrose Park bosses.

Rina Petersen  

Posted: December 27th, 2020 11:09 PM

The Board owe Claudia Medina an apology, for not looking into what she has discovered about Henderson. Instead they terminated her as the Vice President of the Board. The Board need to be responsible adults, and own their mistakes.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 26th, 2020 10:59 AM

James Henderson was Executive Director of Human Resources Yonkers Public Schools, Yonkers, NY from 1999-2000. An investigation by the Inspector General of the City of Yonkers, NY, produced "findings and recommendations regarding certain employment and personnel practices of the Yonkers Public School District," in an investigation conducted between August and November, 2000. . . . "In the third instance, we found an apparent violation of the Board's Conflict of Interest provision, which requires that the School District not hire relatives of high level central staff administrators 'except upon the consent of two-thirds of the Members of the Board to be determined at a Board meeting and to be entered upon the proceedings of the Board.' . . The District hired teacher Victoria Henderson, the wife of then Executive Director of Personnel James Henderson, without complying with this ethics provision. . . . In fact, Ms. Henderson's appointment never appeared in a Board personnel resolution, and thus, was never voted on by the Board. Moreover, Ms. Henderson received a starting teacher's salary of $65,000, when her credentials only justified a maximum starting salary of $45,767."

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 24th, 2020 1:46 PM

There's a Nov. 2000 report from the Department of the Inspector General of the City of Yonkers, NY, to the Yonkers Board of Education that documents Henderson's nepotistic practices. I'll post that the day after tomorrow.

Charles Lacy  

Posted: December 24th, 2020 1:10 PM

It is still my lifelong commitment to not standby and see children wronged whether I know them or not. Every child deserves a fair chance and opportunity at success and as educational leaders and stakeholders, we owe it to them to fight for them and be a voice to the voiceless.

Charles Lacy  

Posted: December 24th, 2020 1:05 PM

The rest of my message was I am not disgruntled, I am disappointed.

Charles Lacy from Jackson  

Posted: December 24th, 2020 12:54 PM

I was employed with the HCCSD from 2006 until 2019. I was an administrator with a successful record and up until Dr. Henderson's arrival, one of the longest tenured administrators in the district. Every school I was assigned to moved up in ranking including my last assignment at the only high school in the district. Upon Dr. Henderson's arrival, he immediately transferred me from the high school with NO cause ( keep in mind, at the time the high school had just moved to successful under my leadership) He quickly replaced me with one of his friends from Texas. The person he replaced me with was discovered to have a license that had been revoked and the person left after Labor Day. After, the high school had 6 principals in one year. The high school dropped in ratings and is now an F ( lowest rating possible) That's just one of hundreds of examples of the intimidating mismanagement and awful practices authorized and carried out by Dr. Henderson. The district is in double the dire straits it was in prior to his arrival and the. State audit only proved what the people and employees of the district already knew. If the school board that hired him truly value the future of the children they are tasked with protecting, then they will stop ignoring all the information that they have been flooded with and make the hard and probably embarrassing decision to do what is necessary to keep their district from becoming the next Holmes County! My God people, why would you think ALL these things continue to come up with this man and it all be a witch-hunt?! Do you know the level of conspiracy and the depth of planning it would take for so many entities to say the same things from different people in different places including State officials? I'm a 25 year educator that dedicated my life to the improvement of the lives of children and it is disturbing to see this kind of behavior, that's putting children's futures at risk, be allowed to continue. I'm not disgruntled,

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 7:33 PM

As the Associated Press put it last year, "Holmes County has some explaining to do. So far, it's provided none other than for the current superintendent, Dr. James Henderson, to make the excuse that he wasn't around when Thomas was hired. . (Henderson) was on board, though, when Thomas was convicted last August in Alabama. What action did Henderson take then? . It's time for some answers." . Yep. Exactly. From those on the D209 board who saw fit to hire him.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 7:21 PM

Oh, I'm sorry, Ms. Antoine. So, when you looked in his file, it showed that one of your senior employees had three priors and was on probation at the time? That bother you at all?

Rina Petersen  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 6:30 PM

One google search of the Super name and Holmes school district yield to many interesting stories.

Deborah Antoine  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 4:58 PM

Mr. Thomas was hired in August, 2016, which is 2 years before Dr. Henderson and I began working in Holmes County. My. tenure as Chief of Staff was the 2018-2019 year only. All employees hired in that year had background checks completed.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 3:30 PM

It should be noted that, according to Mississippi Today, state auditors found that "sixteen of the 20 employees did not have background checks in their files. The auditors were unable to determine whether background checks were ever completed." Rather inadequate due diligence by the district's chief of staff and the superintendent.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 3:16 PM

Ms. Holmes is listed as "from St. Louis," but she was Chief of Staff of the Holmes County Consolidated School District between May, 2018 and July, 2020, where I would assume she worked closely with Supt. Henderson. So the D209 school board might want to question Henderson on just how a guy was was convicted of mail fraud, who pleaded guilty to "misusing school funds for personal gain" while he was the principal of Greensboro, AL High School, and who was fined by the Alabama Ethics Commission for misuse of funds at a different high school according to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, ever passed the hiring process to become Assistant Principal at Holmes County Central High School. That person with the criminal history, Dyana Terrelle Thomas, was arrested and charged with the statutory rape of a 17-year old student in May, 2019. Mississippi law requires that school districts do background checks on all potential hires. It shouldn't have been too difficult to weed out Thomas- according to the Selma-Times Journal, Thomas was on probation for his last conviction when he was hired by Holmes County Schools.

Pam Fontana  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 12:59 PM

Just what D209 needs. Another administrator with baggage. Sure hope an eye is kept on all things to protect our district and the children in it.

Deborah Antoine  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 10:06 AM

While this article tries to show investigation of the statements in the press release of the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor Shad White, some of the more blatantly biased statements by the auditor's office go pretty much unchecked. In the release, White said, "This audit reveals widespread problems." Widespread? The release listed 3 items?"all financial discrepancies. All three items were linked to the Superintendent, as if they only looked for things related to Dr. Henderson. There was no finding of any misspending in curricular and extra-curricular expenditures, human resources, technology, transportation or food service. I would hardly call three items featuring the Superintendent widespread. In fact, it looks much more like a targeted attempt to smear Dr. Henderson's name?"a very nonprofessional witch hunt. It's too bad that the auditor is allowed to make unqualified statements about expenditures. The $4200 spent on the party preceding the bond issue vote did not rise to the $5000 criteria set by the board as the amount they had to approve. That party was primarily funded by private donations by bond supporters and the steering committee. Also disappointing that Shad White characterized the event as a BYOB party when the flyer clearly stated "Bring lawn chairs and your preferred beverage." The reality is that most people brought bottled water and thermoses of hot beverages because it was a chilly afternoon. The school board did not approve the flyer because that is not their job. The school board hires and oversees the Superintendent; they do not micromanage any other areas of a school district. Board members received copies of the flyers and some of them attended the event.

Deborah Antoine  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 10:05 AM

The superintendent's salary was approved, apparently in closed session, and accurately reflected in his contract. The Board of Education's attorney supervised and approved the contract, so if there was anything out of order, the responsibility rests with the Board and not the Superintendent who came from out of state. The recommendation that Dr. Henderson repay a portion of his salary is ridiculous and the auditor who suggested it should be investigated for incompetence. The same applies to the auditor's statement that a district superintendent is not a state employee. All public education employees in Mississippi are state employees. The Mississippi attorney(s) who included the moving expenses as part of the compensation package knew that. Ultimately, the Holmes County Consolidated School District Board of Education voted 4-1 on Friday, December 18 to terminate both attorneys for this debacle. The fact that payments for purchases were made to companies owned by Dr. Henderson's relatives was not something that needed to be disclosed in any formal way because everyone in the county knew that he had relatives there. Every time Dr. Henderson spoke in public, he referred to his childhood home in Holmes County. He often shared why he left to go to college and only returned for family celebrations until he accepted the position of superintendent. It was no secret that he had family members who provided services to the district?"before he arrived and after he left. Every Board member knew his family members and their positions as vendors to the district.

Deborah Antoine from St Louis, MO  

Posted: December 23rd, 2020 10:05 AM

What's really missing from this article is the fact that Dr. James Henderson did an amazing amount of work in the best interests of children. Holmes County Consolidated School District provided computers and internet access to all students, teachers and administrators. It was the first district in the state of Mississippi to deliver meals to students when schools closed due to the pandemic. Most districts, if they provided food, required families to come to school buildings to collect the food. Dr. Henderson knew that many Holmes County residents would not be able to pick up food and had it distributed along the bus routes by bus drivers and district employees. Dr. Henderson persuaded the Board of Education to eliminate corporal punishment from the discipline plan?"a decision that made national headlines. New textbooks and curricular materials were purchased for Reading, Math, Social Studies and Science grades 3-12. HCCSD students were taken on numerous learning field trips and exposed to several educational venues beyond the confines of Holmes County. Dr. Henderson worked every day of his time in Holmes County to even the playing field for the students in the poorest county in the poorest state in America. He fostered a college-going culture throughout the district through student-focused, 21st century skills instruction and learning. Proviso community, rest assured you have the right superintendent to lead your district further into the 21st century and prepare your children to participate in the global community. Mississippi's loss is your gain.

Jon Kubricht from Forest Park   

Posted: December 22nd, 2020 7:53 PM

Well hopefully the board and Proviso Together will start acting sensibly and with dignity and start looking at all Claudia Media has been saying the past few months.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: December 22nd, 2020 5:50 PM

Well, it was a nice four or five years without blatant nepotism and corruption at D209.

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