Delta schools lose in bid to stop state takeover

LEFLORE COUNTY — The Leflore County school system will not be allowed to block a state takeover.

In an order issued yesterday, the state Supreme Court said the school system has no legal right to appeal an emergency takeover order from the governor. The ruling sets a precedent to block future challenges from other districts.

Conservator Robert Strebeck is likely to assume control of the district next week, said Patrice Guilfoyle, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

“We will move forward with our original plan of placing a conservator in the district and we will work to make decisions in the best interest of children,” she said in a statement.

Strebeck is scheduled to be paid $183,600 a year.

Superintendent Viola Williams-McCaskill, who would be displaced by Strebeck, declined comment on the ruling.

State officials said an audit found that Leflore was violating at least 22 state standards, and said a takeover was also in order because all of the district’s schools posted failing grades in the 2012-2013 school year. There have also been allegations of testing irregularities and nepotism in hiring.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd signed a temporary order blocking the takeover on Sept. 16. That’s the same day Gov. Phil Bryant declared an emergency to let the state Department of Education step in.

The school district argued it was owed formal legal appeals where it could put on evidence and question witnesses before the state could act. The Department of Education said formal appeals are allowed when accreditation is downgraded or revoked, but not for declared emergencies leading to takeovers.

Justice Randy Pierce, writing for the court in a unanimous decision, rejected the district’s arguments, saying there is no way for a court to question a request from the Board of Education to the governor.

“The separation of powers doctrine prohibits judicial review of a non-binding request by an executive branch agency made to the governor as chief executive officer,” Pierce wrote. “Furthermore, we find that there is no statutory right of appeal to the circuit court from the governor’s emergency declaration.”

Kidd ruled he couldn’t question an emergency declaration by Bryant, but had ruled that an appeal should be allowed before Bryant acted.

In a state takeover, the county’s five school board members would be removed and barred from ever serving again after a district is returned to local control. The current elected superintendent would be deposed, and the position is typically changed to an appointed superintendent when a district returns to local control.

Claiborne County, which the state also took over in September, had filed a similar suit, but was rejected by a different judge.

With those two, the state will control nine districts. The others are Aberdeen, Sunflower-Drew, Indianola, Oktibbeha County, North Panola, Hazlehurst and Tate County.

Under current law, any district taken over by the state also would lose accreditation, meaning districts can play only half their regular-season high school athletic games and can’t participate in playoffs. It does not affect a high school student’s chance of being admitted into college.

Oktibbeha County is the only district currently without accreditation. The other districts were taken over before the law was changed.

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