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Judge says hearing can go ahead over allegations that Clarksdale teacher cheated on tests

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JACKSON, Mississippi — A Hinds County judge ruled Tuesday that the state can proceed with a hearing that could revoke the license of a Clarksdale teacher over allegations that she cheated on state standardized tests.

Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas rejected arguments by Frances Smith-Kemp that she had to be convicted of a crime before the teacher licensure commission could hold an administrative hearing.

Thomas wrote in his ruling that Smith-Kemp's claim mashes together two separate laws, one that allows administrative hearings and a second that allows misdemeanor charges.

"Plaintiff misinterprets the plain language of both," Thomas wrote. "The two relevant statutes do not contradict one another; neither are the two statutes preclusive of one another."

The ruling dissolved a temporary restraining order that froze the commission's hearing after it had already begun on June 16. Patrice Guilfoyle, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education, said officials are determining when the hearing will restart. She declined further comment.

Thomas also wrote that it wasn't his role to step into an administrative hearing when Smith-Kemp has the option of a court appeal later.

"Plaintiff seeks to have this court prematurely interject itself into an administrative proceeding that both the Legislature and the courts have determined is within the exclusive purview of the agency," he wrote.

Smith-Kemp's lawyer had earlier filed suit in Hinds County Chancery Court and then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thomas only stepped in after a lawyer for the district tracked him down the morning that the hearing began. It's unclear why the district's lawyer intervened on Smith-Kemp's behalf.

The teacher worked at Clarksdale's Heidelberg Elementary School in 2012-13, when the department says she coached students during tests and altered or interfered with their answers. More recently, Smith-Kemp has worked at the city's Oakhurst Intermediate School.

Clarksdale Superintendent Dennis Dupree has maintained that the higher test scores are valid reflections of student progress.

The state started investigating the Clarksdale district in May 2014 after The Clarion-Ledger reported claims that test results were falsified at Heidelberg Elementary. The department said in August that testing security firm Caveon found "reasonable cause" to believe employees had broken security rules on state standardized tests, improperly inflating test scores at the school.

The state has yet to charge anyone else, but Smith-Kemp's lawyer said he believed others would face charges.


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