/Jackson lawmakers question motive in possible JPS takeover

Jackson lawmakers question motive in possible JPS takeover

Tuesday’s Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that Carey Wright, State Education Superintendent, threatened to take over Jackson Public Schools. This is yet another example of state officials interfering in the affairs of the city. Jarvis Dortch (D-Jackson) said, “I’m certainly not saying that these aren’t problems but… there already have enough problems in this city.” “We have our airport taken, we now have Rankin County Republicans wanting to place us under city management, but now we have people (Department of Education).” Dortch’s comments referred to Wright’s stated theme of the meeting: To determine whether the Education Department investigation into Jackson Public Schools is connected to some state legislators’ apparent desire to take control of some governmental agencies from Jackson officials. Jackson officials, including legislators, have grown increasingly anxious over what they see as efforts by the Republican-led legislative leadership to wrest political and economic power from the Democratic-controlled capital city. Local Democratic leaders interpreted the Legislature’s 2016 legislative session as a attempt to take over valuable city property. A number of Jackson officials, including the mayor and council who currently appoint the members to the airport board, sued to stop the legislation from being implemented. This case is currently pending before the federal court. Although the legislation to establish a Capitol-area improvement zone was supported by political leaders, it faced opposition from community groups. Sen. John Horhn (D-Jackson) sponsored the proposal. It would have created a special area that stretches roughly from Jackson State University to Eastover neighborhood, with a state commission responsible for overseeing infrastructure improvements. Jackson officials protested the amendment to the bill to create a special judge to oversee criminal cases that originate in the district. The bill was then killed. In May, state Rep. Mark Baker (R-Brandon) suggested that the Legislature “pass a conservator bill for municipalities, like we have for schools districts.” Baker later stated that he was only considering the possibility of such legislation but hadn’t drafted one. Wright and other officials spoke with legislators Tuesday afternoon about the problems they continue to see in Jackson schools and their interactions with district officials. They also discussed the steps that the district must take to avoid a state takeover. Wright warned Jackson Public Schools officials Tuesday night that a state takeover is possible. The Mississippi Department of Education conducted an audit of the district earlier in the year and found a number of issues. These deficiencies included failing to provide a safe environment for students and missing or incomplete records that proved that they had met graduation requirements. Schools were frequently without smoke detectors, evacuation plans, fire extinguishers and evacuation plans. Officials also found broken windows, inoperable toilets, and air conditioners. Although district leaders said they were working to fix these issues, state officials stated last week that they continue to observe major problems at schools and will conduct unannounced visits in January. Officials from the state also stated that there is no urgency for district officials to address dire problems. The audit resulted in Jackson Public Schools’ accreditation status being reduced to “probation”. In the most recent round of accountability grades, the state gave the district an F rating. Soon after, former Superintendent Cedrick Gray resigned. The district still lacks a permanent leader. Wright claimed that the state department had no intention of taking over Jackson Public Schools. However, lawmakers expressed doubts about those claims, citing previous attempts by the state to seize control over various Jackson entities. Wright and Paula Vanderford, the Education Department’s Office of Accreditation director, presented many items from the prior audit of the district as well as details from last week’s follow-up visits. Wright stated that some schools were experiencing delays in getting students, teachers and buses to school at 9:30 a.m. The law requires schools to offer 330 minutes of instruction each day. Schools in the state typically open their school days at either 7:30 or 8 a.m. One school had a student who tripped over a metal detector, and entered the school without being checked by resource officers. Another school had a teacher who taught the wrong lesson on the wrong subject. Wright stated that these were only from the past week. Wright said that the audit, which dates back to earlier in the year, lists many examples. Because of poor record keeping, there were many children who walked on the JPS stage without enough credits. We now have children with diplomas that did not earn them.” The Jackson delegation also questioned the objectivity and the investigation. They wanted to know what the next steps were in the takeover process. Wright stated that if the state didn’t act quickly to address specific problems identified in corrective actions reports, a takeover by the state could happen as soon as January. Wright explained to Jackson Public Schools Tuesday night that if a takeover happens, Jackson parents can choose to send their children elsewhere, Jackson athletics teams will be banned next year, and all district employees could be fired. Senator David Blount (D-Jackson) asked education officials how long it would take for JPS’s health to be restored. According to the Education Department, it would take 12-18 months to correct all records. “We will do what we can to encourage JPS (on this particular complaint) to address these issues. We hope you will all adopt a common-sense approach to the way you view the solutions we have put in place.” Horhn stated that takeover was not an option. R.L. Nave and Kate Royals, Mississippi Today reporters. This report was contributed by Nave