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Trouble in Natchez: School Board Members Ousted, But State Law Says No

This report is from News Mississippi affiliate WQNZ reporter John Mott Coffey

NATCHEZ, Miss.–Natchez aldermen’s attempt Tuesday to fire school board members has been invalidated by state law.

They acknowledged Wednesday that the board’s 3-2 vote to oust three Natchez-Adams school trustees has no legal basis.

“I’m not trying to do something that’s not legal,” said Alderman Ricky Gray.

Gray led the vote to remove the three Natchez-Adams School District board members: Thelma Newsome, David Troutman and Benny Wright. The three are the city aldermen’s appointees to the five-seat NASD Board of Trustees, which has the two other members appointed by the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

Disgruntled about the NASD board’s oversight of schools, the city board passed Gray’s proposal “to relieve our school board members of their duties if permitted by law.” After researching the law, city attorney Hyde Carby said Wednesday it’s not permitted.

State law says only a judge can remove public officials from their posts if they’re convicted of a felony or corruption in office or if a formal inquest finds them “to be of unsound mind.”

Gray and other detractors are accusing the NASD board and Superintendent Fred Hill of mismanaging the school system. The criticism has mainly been about school employees who’ve lost their jobs and others who’ve been hired. Protesters have demanded Hill and the school board resign.

Natchez-Adams schools have been given an ‘F’ by the state Department of Education the past two years because of low student test scores, but school leaders predict that grade will go up this year.

“If we come out showing improvement, that should silence the critics,” Troutman said.

The aldermen voting to remove Troutman, Newsome and Wright were Gray, Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis and Mark Fortenbery. Dan Dillard and Sarah Carter Smith voted against unseating the school trustees. Tony Fields, who’s principal of Joe Frazier Elementary School, abstained from Tuesday’svote.

While the three aldermen wanting to fire the school board members may have “lost the battle,” their effort could give momentum to a push to make the NASD board an elected body, said Arceneaux-Mathis.

“What we did (Tuesday) night shows the community you’ve got leadership that’s trying to do something,” she said.

City aldermen in May and county supervisors in June voted for relinquishing their appointment powers and let voters decide who the five school board members are. This change requires the Mississippi Legislature’s approval. The annual legislative session starts in January.

Hill and school trustees have said their strides to improve the academically struggling NASD require shaking up personnel and programs. Hill last month described this as “growing pains.” He said students’ performance on state assessment tests this year should bring the school district’s state grade up to a ‘D’ or better after having flunked the past two years.

The fourth school trustee – board President Tim Blalock — is an appointee of the county Board of Supervisors. The county board is considering nominees for the fifth seat, which Ruth Nichols recently vacated after having just been appointed in February by the supervisors.

The selection process for filling that board vacancy is providing supervisors an opportune chance to exert their influence over the school system. County Supervisor Angela Hutchins on Monday nominated Diane Good, who has a tutoring program for schoolchildren. Supervisor Mike Lazarus nominated Cynthia Smith, a retired school principal and mother of former Natchez High School assistant principal Shannon Doughty. Doughty maintains she was unjustly removed from her post.

Supervisor David Carter said he has potential candidates in mind and suggested the county board interview all nominees in a public session so more people can know about who could be placed on the school board.

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