GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – The George County School District remains under probation for numerous violations of state education rules, over three years after allegations of staff-sanctioned cheating first surfaced.
An investigative audit by the Mississippi Department of Education found the district in violation of 24 out of 32 process standards when the results were sent on June 24, 2021.
This month, the district is still non-compliant with 14 standards. It will remain on Probation status indefinitely until administrators submit proof that the district has come into compliance.
Many of the findings in the 193-page audit, obtained by WKRG, support arguments in a pending lawsuit by former superintendent Pam Touchard against the school board.
Discoveries include evidence of cheating to help students graduate, interference by school board members in the daily operations of the district and potential violations of the state’s open meeting law as school board members allegedly met in a locked office.
High school cheating and graduation concerns
The audit began in July 2019 when Touchard informed MDE of an allegation brought to her by a high school student who was unwittingly led to take a test for another student to help them graduate.
“Information obtained through confidential interviews with staff, parents, and a student, along with other evidence including video evidence provided to MDE, reveal a student completed a test, just days before graduation, in a credit recovery course for a senior who the district allowed to graduate in the Spring of 2019,” investigators wrote in the audit.
When Touchard began looking into the allegation, state investigators said the school board instructed her not to take action against staff members named in the incident. Touchard’s lawsuit said she received threats from board members to not elevate the concerns to the state.
The district also allowed 116 students, out of the 270 total in the Class of 2019, to participate in commencement without documentation to support that the students had met the state’s minimum graduation requirements.
Records for at least seven students indicated administrators should not have approved their graduation. Three did not pass end-of-course subject area tests or meet alternative requirements. Four others received physical education credit for working in the high school office.
District administrators expressed concerns that more seniors may have graduated only because other students took credit recovery exams for them.
Wade Whitney was the high school principal when the audit began. The school’s graduation rate ballooned from 82.3% for the class of 2015, the year before he was hired, to the fourth-highest rate in the state at 95.3% for the class of 2020, the year he transitioned to the district office as the current superintendent.
The district’s 208-page Corrective Action Plan, obtained by WKRG through a public records request, said GCHS administration and counselors reviewed each graduating student’s record for the class of 2021 to ensure they met requirements.
State records, however, indicate the district has not submitted proper evidence to clear the violation. MDE auditors are concerned as to the “legitimacy and fidelity” of which the district has issued diplomas.
School board interference in day-to-day operations
Auditors say the school board “failed to effectively perform its duties in its role of oversight of management for the District as prescribed by law.”
The final report found that, in addition to obstructing the cheating investigation, the school board routinely interfered in the day-to-day operations of the District. They assigned administrative authority to individuals other than superintendent Touchard and did not permit her to perform the duties prescribed by law.
Based on interviews with staff, auditors found Touchard was prohibited from handling personnel matters at the high school and Principal Whitney was made to report directly to the board.
Touchard’s lawsuit claims the board decreased her salary and hired an assistant superintendent, specifically to oversee operations at the high school, only while she held office.
State statute changed during Touchard’s term in office, eliminating superintendent elections and giving hiring responsibility to local school boards. Wade Whitney is the first ever appointed superintendent in George County.
On Dec. 31, 2019, auditors say Board President Barkley Henderson directed the technology coordinator to disable the email account of outgoing superintendent Touchard and to forward all emails for her to incoming superintendent Whitney. The audit says this type of directive is an administrative duty of the superintendent, not a board member.
In its response to the audit, the district did not outline a plan for correction, saying school board members do not actually interfere in day-to-day operations. To partially come into compliance, an organizational chart was approved by the board in July 2021 outlining superintendent responsibilities, and the district says school board members attended extra training.
The district remains out of compliance with that process standard, although it encompasses more than board interference.
The state only has authority over licensed educators, not the elected members of the school board. Associate State Superintendent for Accreditation Jo Ann Malone told WKRG the only way for some districts to come into compliance with the standard and be removed from probation is for board leadership to change.
Four members of the current school board — Barkley Henderson, Christopher Hilbun, Jessie Ludgood and Mike Steede — held their seats at the time the audit was initiated. Jake Green was appointed in 2020.
MDE, in part, verifies districts come into compliance by interviewing board members and school staff about the board’s role. That comes after district leadership claims to have fixed the documented issues.
Open meeting concerns
In one incident described in the audit, MDE staff attended a school board meeting on Nov. 5, 2019, and asked to go into executive session with board members.
Investigators say Board President Barkley Henderson pointed and yelled at the staff, saying he was “sick of y’all coming to our meetings and getting in our face.” He denied her access to the executive session. He then pointed at the other MDE staff and asked if he was recording, yelling that they weren’t allowed to.
Minutes prior, the board had approved a series of policies. One stated individuals can record as long as they do not disrupt the meeting or block the view of others in attendance.
The board went into and stayed in executive session for two hours. When they came out, Henderson said there was no action taken but the recording policy was tabled to allow for revisions. No motion was ever made or vote taken to table it.
Two weeks prior, then-board attorney April McDonald told MDE staff on Oct. 21 that the board would have a special-called meeting on Oct. 24 to discuss the transition of the new superintendent. 30 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to begin on Oct. 24, McDonald emailed MDE saying the meeting was moved to Oct. 28 due to a “rescheduled ballgame and potential for bad weather.”
MDE received complaints that the Oct. 28 meeting was never called to order or adjourned. Security camera footage showed board members came into the district office and went upstairs, met, and later came downstairs and left, despite individuals in attendance waiting for the public meeting to take place.
Minutes of the meeting didn’t include a call to order, adjournment or executive session. It stated only that a “work session was held to discuss personnel matters.” Video showed the board’s secretary laying materials on the table, but board members never pick it up.
Investigators wrote that the door to the building seemed to be locked throughout the night, appearing to prevent anyone from being able to enter without having someone unlock it and let them in.
The district’s Corrective Action Plan says all meeting notices are posted on its website and have been live streamed on Youtube since March 2020.
Gifted program and other violations
On Aug. 28, 2019, MDE auditors visited the district and requested gifted documentation. The district representative left the conference room to collect the files from the building that houses the information.
After waiting two hours for her to return, another district staff member escorted auditors to the building behind the middle school that houses gifted documents. They found the building locked, with the lights off, and no one inside.
When auditors returned another day, records showed the district failed to provide an adequate number of gifted education teachers based on the number of identified gifted students. Classes included up to 17 students, exceeding the recommended class size of 8-12.
MDE reviewed records for 75 of the 259 gifted students. 8 of the 75 records contained mold and were illegible. 21 files did not include an assessment report documenting the student’s eligibility and progress in the program.
Findings in other areas included:
- School libraries received consistent budget cuts over three years, including a 35% cut in the 2019-2020 budget. Collections did not represent a “well-balanced, broad range of current learning media, including up-to-date instructional technology, periodicals, teacher resources and equipment.”
- 88 of 238 student records reviewed by auditors failed to contain immunization verification.
- The district failed to ensure that at least 95% of enrolled students participated in appropriate and required assessments.
- The district presented some textbooks for audit that were over 12 years old, a violation of state policy.
- The alternative education program, at both location sites, failed to have certified teachers providing educational services to students.
- GCSD failed to provide a written policy or procedure to demonstrate controls that protect against waste, fraud and abuse.
The 24 out of 32 process standards George County Schools violated was the second-highest out of all 152 public school districts in Mississippi at the time.
The district will remain on Probation status indefinitely. To return to Accredited status, MDE must approve evidence the district submits that it came into compliance with the 14 outstanding violations.
Henderson, Whitney and board attorney Cherie Wade declined to comment on the audit, citing pending litigation.