- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Last-minute intervention by a chancery judge is delaying an effort to revoke the license of a Clarksdale teacher accused of cheating on Mississippi’s standardized tests.

Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas issued an order Tuesday, after a hearing on revoking Francis Smith-Kemp’s license had already begun.

Preston Rideout, Smith-Kemp’s lawyer, contends that her license can’t be revoked under state law until after she’s convicted of a misdemeanor. Lawyers for the Mississippi Department of Education disagree, and both sides will argue the point Wednesday before Thomas. The hearing would resume if Thomas rules in the state’s favor.

State officials say John Cocke, a lawyer for the Clarksdale school district, secured the order Tuesday morning. They questioned why the district appears to be aiding Smith-Kemp.

“It’s very unusual,” said Tommie Cardin, a private lawyer working for the Department of Education. “We don’t quite understand why the school district would want to be so actively involved in the process.”

Clarksdale Superintendent Dennis Dupree, who attended Tuesday’s hearing, did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.

The move revived Rideout’s earlier legal challenges to the administrative hearing. Rideout had filed suit in Hinds County Chancery Court last week and then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Smith-Kemp 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.

Dupree has maintained that the higher test scores are valid reflections of student progress. Rideout sought to admit much information during Tuesday’s hearing about student performance, but some of it wasn’t allowed because department lawyers objected to it as irrelevant.

The state also successfully deflected an effort by Rideout to call State Superintendent Carey Wright as a witness. The lawyer said Wright inappropriately labeled Smith-Kemp as guilty in an April 23 news conference announcing the charges against her.

“We contend that, as the head of the Mississippi Department of Education, she has prejudged Ms. Smith-Kemp’s guilt, which makes it impossible for Ms. Smith-Kemp to get a fair hearing,” Rideout said.

But lawyers for the state said Wright has no direct role in the administrative proceedings, which could be appealed to the state Board of Education.

“Did Francis Smith-Kemp help students cheat in the classroom?” asked Mark Garriga, another lawyer representing the department. “That’s the question here. It’s not about press conferences.”

State lawyers on Tuesday accused Smith-Kemp of trying to influence witnesses, a charge Rideout denied.

The state started investigating the Clarksdale School 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 Rideout said he believed others from Clarksdale besides Smith-Kemp would face charges.

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