Over 30,000 Mississippians get stories like this delivered to their inboxes for free.
Sign up for The Today, our daily newsletter, and continue to read this story.
The state Education Department has cited the Jackson Public School District for violating 22 of the state’s 32 accreditation benchmarks, Mississippi Today has learned.
The violations include some classified as “standards that pose life-threatening conditions for students and staff,” according to the Education Department.
The citations include allegations that Superintendent Cedrick Gray often overturns principals’ implementation of discipline policies and has not ensured safe and clean school facilities. Other violations include extensive problems with the district’s records, class instruction and a lack of documentation proving that some seniors who graduated in the past two years met the state’s current graduation requirements.
Officials also found that many JPS teachers don’t hold a valid teacher’s license or are not properly endorsed for the subject they are teaching.
“We review constantly the licensure of our teachers. Some are on emergency licenses and some are limited service,” or substitute teachers with no teaching credentials, Gray said. “Just like the rest of the state and many parts of the country we’re struggling to make sure that we hire teachers and keep them.”
School board policies were often outdated or not compliant with the law – including policies regarding attendance, grading and graduation requirements, the 100-page document said.
The district’s school board president, Beneta Burt, said she was not able to discuss specific findings until she had read the document completely.
“The Board of Trustees has complete confidence in Dr. Gray’s leadership, and they have been working on addressing the issues since they received it,” Burt said.
Gray, who has headed the district since 2012, also said he can’t comment on details of the audit and that district administrators are still working through the findings.
“We’ve assembled a team of administrators to prepare the district’s response. I have the utmost confidence in our JPS administrators – all of them are ultimate professionals and understand exactly what’s at stake,” Gray said.
Gray said it is also important to remember that an audit is a “snapshot in a particular moment.”
“I think the easiest way for me to say it is that this is a snapshot of about 20, or roughly one-third of our schools, over the span of about three weeks,” Gray said.
The Education Department audited 18 school districts this past year, including Jackson, as the result of a law passed by the Legislature requiring the state to audit C-, D- and F-rated school districts. Jackson Public Schools is the only district that was recommended for an accreditation status downgrade.
The Commission on School Accreditation will hold a hearing on Aug. 4, where the department will recommend that the Jackson district’s status be downgraded from “accredited” to “probation.” If the commission agrees with the department, Jackson Public Schools must submit a plan for correcting each violation within a certain time frame.
The three possible statuses for districts are accredited, probation and withdrawn.
“Probation” is defined as a district that does not comply with all of the accreditation policies and standards and will be required to develop and implement a corrective action plan during a specified timeline.
“Withdrawn” is assigned to a district that has previously been on probation and is still not complying with its corrective action plan.
However, JPS violated several of the standards that can call for a recommended accreditation status of “withdrawn,” including failing to comply with graduation requirements and failure to comply with standards that pose life-threatening conditions for students and staff, according to the Education Department’s website.
“Recommendations to downgrade a district’s accreditation status take into account both the number of deficiencies in the district and the size and scope of each deficiency throughout an entire district,” department spokeswoman Jean Cook said when asked how the department decided to recommend “probation” instead of “withdrawn.”
If a district’s accreditation status is withdrawn, its schools would be limited to participation in no more than half of the regular season of any athletic activity, in addition to speech and debate, choral music and band. All post-season activities are also suspended, and the school district will not be allowed to hold any special games, parades, tournaments or competitions of any kind.
The state board of education could also recommend the governor declare a state of emergency in the school, which could eventually lead to a state takeover, according to Cook.
A review of seniors who graduated in 2015 shows that 25 out of 193 students’ records showed they did not meet graduation requirements. For the prior year, “a large number of records contain no documentation verifying that students have passed all four end-of-course subject area tests,” which is a requirement for graduation.
“The superintendent does not provide effective educational leadership in the areas of managing district personnel, implementation of policies and the development of board and community relations,” the audit states.
Gray said just as the district worked to correct the problems with its special education program, it will work to correct any findings from this audit.
In 2012, a group of special needs students sued the district and the state education department for special education violations by the district, including placing special needs students in segregated settings and improper suspension of students with disabilities among other violations.
Jackson Public Schools is the state’s second largest school district and its largest urban district with more than 30,000 students.