Coahoma Early College High School filed a lawsuit with the Chancery Court of Hinds County recently looking to obtain a temporary restraining order and injunction preventing the Mississippi Department of Education from closing the school for at least the 2021-22 academic year.
The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) in an April 15 letter to Dr. Valmadge Towner, superintendent of Coahoma Early College High School (CECHS) said funding will now move from the state through local school districts and CECHS must obtain a Memorandum of Understanding from those districts, specifically Clarksdale Municipal School District and Coahoma County School District, both releasing students to CECHS and then sending the dollars from the state to CECHS.
If the local school districts do not sign the MOU, CECHS will be closed by July 1. However, the lawsuit filed is an attempt to prevent CECHS from closing even if all the local school district superintendents do not sign the MOU.
“You can see we’re going forward with planning for the high school just like normal,” said Towner, also the Coahoma Community College president, during Monday’s board meeting.
Towner said the staff for 2021-22 would pretty much be the same as the past school year.
The Quitman County and Tunica County superintendents have already signed the MOU to keep CECHS open. The Coahoma County School District and Clarksdale Municipal School District superintendents have not signed the MOU.
“Two of them have already signed off on the MOAs – Quitman County and Tunica – right away,” Towner said. “Coahoma County is indicating that they support. They wanted questions to be answered. We went to them. We’ve answered sheets of questions.”
Towner said he called meeting with all four superintendents at the CCSD’s request where he met with all four superintendents.
“We have not yet heard from Coahoma County,” Towner said. “Clarksdale, I think went on record, of not voting on it at all. So I don’t know where we are with Coahoma County and Clarksdale, specifically. We’re trying to do all that we can, all that we’re able to.”
Towner said he was appealing to everyone to call anyone they know who could keep the CECHS program going.
“It’s not really about the school more so than it is about the program,” Towner said. “And that’s an opportunity. The high school is gone. It went away in ’16 as far as Coahoma Agricultural High School is concerned and we started Early College High School.”
CECHS and CCC board attorney Steve Brandon discussed the letter from MDE chief academic officer Dr. Nathan Oakley on April 15.
“What is significant about this letter is that the threat of closure of CECHS is not based upon a failure to meet any academic standards or non-compliance with any obligations,” Brandon said. “The soul reason we’re threatened with closure in this letter on April 15, 2021 is the continued operation of CECHS is made conditioned and contingent on entering into this memorandum of understanding.”
Brandon said he expects the matter to be heard quickly as it would be considered urgent since students may have to find new schools and teachers may have to find new jobs.
In the past, Brandon said working with MDE has not been a problem, but not this time.
“Quite frankly by the end of last week they just won’t return our calls,” Brandon said.
Brandon said he is hoping something is worked out with the MDE or CECHS has another year to get all four local superintendents to sign the MOU.
Towner responded to a statement another superintendent made.
“One superintendent made a statement that the administration here was doing some things not correct and they slapped us on the hand,” Towner said. “This letter was not precipitated based on any inequity or any incompetence of the administration.”
Towner said he asked specifically if he had done anything wrong and was told no.
“If we had done something wrong, I would tell you, ‘Hey, we messed up. We just messed up. Please forgive us. We’re going to try to get it right,’” Towner said. “We haven’t done anything wrong. I have people grilling me on that because it was put out there we have done something wrong. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
Towner understood why the CCSD and CMSD have not signed the MOUs.
“Being a former superintendent of a small school district, I do understand why they don’t want to,” said Towner, adding the Tunica and Quitman County school districts have fewer students.
Towner said he has an excellent relationship with CMSD superintendent Dr. Earl Joe Nelson and he understood why the district needs the money. However, until reading the Clarksdale Press Register, Towner was under the impression Nelson would sign the MOU.
“We thought that was a slam dunk until we got the paper,” Towner said.
Board member Lois McMurchy brought up how there were few African-Americans on the MDE board. McMurchy and Brandon looked at the MDE website and saw Dr. Angela Bass was the only African-American board member. They said board member Amy Zhang was Chinese and the rest of the board members were White.