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Sued Superintendent’s Contract Extended, In-Fighting Continues in Natchez

By John Mott Coffey, with News Mississippi affiliate WQNZ

NATCHEZ, Miss.–The Natchez Board of Aldermen and Mayor Butch Brown are scheduled to meet today with education board members as they continue to contend with poor communications and a lack of trust in how local schools are being managed.

This comes a week after Brown and aldermen joined Adams County supervisors to meet with the Natchez-Adams School District leaders to air out disputes they’ve had with them for more than a year. The head of the Mississippi School Boards Association was there as a mediator.

Their conflicts have largely been about the hire-and-fire decisions made by the NASD administration. The most recent is the school board’s extension of NASD Superintendent Frederick Hill’s job contract as he fends off lawsuits alleging he unjustly forced school employees out of their jobs.

At the Oct. 20 meeting of city, county and school officials, they expressed hopes their discussions would help bring clarity and unity about what’s causing the conflicts and how they can be resolved. However, few – if any — specific solutions came from the meeting.

Brown said Hill and the five-member school board have withheld too much information from the public and aren’t doing a good job explaining their actions. This has caused the school officials to be dogged by a lack of public accountability, trust and confidence. “I think that may be the root problem,” the mayor said.

Aldermen and supervisors have expressed similar views. “You can’t just build a wall against us and say ‘this is what we’re going to do’,” Supervisor Mike Lazarus told school board members last week.

The furor has been further fueled by a federal trial jury’s decision last month against Hill. Jurors voted to award former West Elementary School principal Cindy Idom more than $370,000 for lost wages and other damages she said she suffered after Hill badgered her out of her job. Idom alleged this was part of a systemic practice of getting rid of white administrators in the mostly black school system headed by a black superintendent.

School board President Tim Blalock, who’s white, said trustees can’t publicly say much about their personnel decisions, but he did say NASD officials could give the city and county boards more updates about what’s going on in the school system. He also urged critics to bring their grievances directly to the school board rather than just complain to aldermen and supervisors.

The mayor and aldermen appoint three school board members while county supervisors appoint two. The city and county boards since last year have tried to throw out NASD trustees. While state law doesn’t allow such removal, the aldermen and supervisors have filled two school board vacancies with appointees — Amos James and Cynthia Smith — who’ve criticized the NASD administration.

The city and county boards last year also endorsed having the five school board members elected by Natchez-Adams County voters rather than appointed, but no bill has been filed for this in the Mississippi Legislation as required.

Today’s city board agenda has time set aside for school board appointees to appear before the Natchez aldermen and mayor. Aldermen have said they want their three school appointees – Thelma Newsome, Benny Wright and James – to regularly report to them. The Board of Aldermen meets at 4:30 p.m. for its finance session and 6 p.m. for its regular meeting.

Much of last week’s meeting focused on the school board’s powers in personnel decisions. There was little discussion about how the academically struggling Natchez-Adams school system is improving its students’ low grades. The school district last year pulled its annual state grade up to a ‘D’ after flunking assessment tests the previous two years. School board members credit Hill for improving the schools’ performance.

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