GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – Two new members were sworn into office on the George County School District Board of Education in the first meeting of the year.

Matthew Smith, veterinarian at George Co. Veterinary Clinic now represents District 1, including the Brushy Creek, Rocky Creek and Ward communities.

Maria Clanton, a special education teacher and department chair in Pascagoula-Gautier Schools and former administrator in George Co. Schools, represents District 2. It includes the Agricola, Howell, Movella and Pine Level communities.

Both won election in November and will serve terms through 2028.

Clanton was elected board secretary during the Jan. 5 meeting, Mike Steede was named vice president and Barkley Henderson retained the role of board president.

The new members were seated without any ruling by the U.S. District Court to determine whether they can be included in executive sessions discussing a federal lawsuit against the district filed by former superintendent Pam Touchard.

The lawsuit alleges the district’s board of education discriminated against Touchard by denying her any employment opportunity after her term as superintendent ended and other retaliatory measures after she reported staff-sanctioned cheating to the state in 2019.

In a motion filed Dec. 9, the district’s attorneys argue both Clanton and Smith have relationships to Touchard that could unfairly harm the district’s side of the lawsuit and potentially violate attorney-client privilege.

In response, Touchard’s attorneys told the court: “Plaintiff cannot be silent as defense counsel seeks to deprive the citizens of George County of their right to vote by excluding their duly-elected school board members from participating in official business.”

The latest filing in the lawsuit was a reply to the motion by district’s attorneys on Dec. 19. Until a ruling is issued by a federal judge, both members will legally be permitted to remain in executive session discussions.

The board entered into executive session during the new members’ first meeting only to discuss an individual student, not any pending lawsuit.

Audit clearance timeline

Touchard’s lawsuit was filed after an investigative audit was opened by the Mississippi Dept. of Education into the school district in July 2019. The results, delivered to the district June 2021, found GCSD in violation of 24 out of 32 state standards.

Superintendent Wade Whitney told the board during the meeting that district administrators are hopeful the remaining violations will be cleared by the start of the 2023-2024 school year.

Whitney said the district is still working to submit evidence that will clear it of five violations and the rest have either been cleared or are pending clearance by the state.

When all violations are cleared, the state accreditation department will likely recommend the district be moved from Probation status to Accredited. The State Board of Education typically meets in October to approve accreditation statuses annually.