Federal Officials Reviewing Inequity Complaints in a Mississippi School District

JACKSON, Miss.

The U.S. Justice Department is looking into complaints of racial disparities within the Cleveland Public School District.

Federal officials are reviewing whether the district is in compliance with a 1969 desegregation order and a consent decree reached in the late 1980s, said Bear Atwood, director of the Mississippi Justice Project.

Among the complaints is that the district’s only magnet school is predominantly White when there should be an equal ratio of White and minority students. Residents also say the predominantly Black schools are in disrepair, including one that contains mold and asbestos.

Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the agency wouldn’t comment because it’s an ongoing matter.

Jacquelyn Thigpen, superintendent of the 3,500-student district, said federal officials were in town last week as part of the regular monitoring associated with the consent decree and as a result of the complaints.

“When they were here they visited every facility and they met with every building administrator. They will get us a report of their findings,” Thigpen said Tuesday. “We were working to correct them (problems) before the Justice Department came.”

Residents have been contacting Atwood’s nonprofit organization about their concerns. The group helped organize a public hearing this past weekend while federal officials were in Cleveland, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

Margaret Block, who describes herself as a concerned citizen, claims district officials haven’t made an effort to racially balance the Hayes Cooper Center, an elementary magnet school. Block also said Nailor Elementary School should be renovated.

“The school has mold, mildew and asbestos. When it rains, the boys can’t use the bathroom because it’s flooding in there. It’s not fit for anybody to be housed there, especially when you’re talking about learning,” said Block.

Thigpen said Hayes Cooper is 61 percent White; 35 percent Black; 2 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian.

She said the school board recently voted to no longer require a registration fee when students enroll in the school. Block said the fee is $10 for elementary school students.

“There were more White parents who agreed to pay the fee than Black parents,” Thigpen said.

Atwood said state law requires districts to waive the registration fee for parents who cannot afford it.

Thigpen said the district hasn’t had the money to renovate Nailor Elementary because Mississippi’s school building fund hasn’t received state funding in years. Lawmakers have been diverting $20 million from the fund to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a school equity funding formula.

Thigpen said repairs at Nailor could cost up to $11 million.

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