Jackson Public Schools put on probation

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The state downgraded Jackson Public School District’s accreditation status to “probation” on Tuesday in response to an audit of 22 schools that found the district in violation of a majority of the state’s accreditation standards.

The main reason for the downgrade was findings in two areas: maintaining a safe school environment and the district’s graduation requirements, said Paula Vanderford, executive director of the state Education Department’s accreditation office.

The report showed that schools were regularly without fire extinguishers, evacuation plans and smoke detectors. Broken windows, air conditions and inoperable toilets were noted in the schools as well.

The audit also found the district did not have records proving graduated students had completed the required number of Carnegie units or had a passing score on all four of the high school exit exams.

Accreditation Office Executive Director Paula Vanderford presents the Mississippi Department of Education's findings from its April audit of Jackson Public School District.

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Accreditation Office Executive Director Paula Vanderford presents the Mississippi Department of Education’s findings from its April audit of Jackson Public School District.

The Commission on School Accreditation voted unanimously to downgrade the district’s status. A majority of commission members also voted to approve a full audit of the district by the Mississippi Department of Education. The audit that prompted the accreditation downgrade was done of a sample of 22 schools, including all Jackson public high schools.

The three statuses for school districts are accredited, probation and withdrawn. This will be the second time in five years the state has placed Jackson Public Schools on probation.

Jackson Superintendent Cedrick Gray attempted to address the commission, but Commission Chairman Lee Childress barred him from speaking because the district did not request a hearing to defend itself within 10 days of receiving the findings.

“As a school district you don’t really want to be perceived as fighting the state department,” Gray later told the media. “At the same time you want to make sure you stand up for your own rights and make sure your voice is heard.

“I still think, though, we didn’t have enough information to push a really good argument that said ‘This is the reason we should not be placed on probation,’ ” he said. “We just didn’t have enough.”

Gray said while he agreed with some of the findings, some were based on “subjective, rather than objective, criteria.”

“One of the things noted was district missed a standard because it didn’t have a code of conduct. We have had a code of conduct for years, so we want to know where you were looking when you didn’t see this?” Gray said.

Jackson Public School Superintendent Cedrick Gray, left, introduces members of the school board to the Commission on School Accreditation on Tuesday.

Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Jackson Public School Superintendent Cedrick Gray, left, introduces members of the Jackson Publci School board to the Commission on School Accreditation on Tuesday.

The audit noted that the code of conduct not being part of the student handbook as one of six findings supporting the district being in violation of Standard 1.2, which states the school board policies comply with state and federal statutes.

Gray also noted references in the audit to confidential surveys and interviews, which he said he wanted to see himself.

In the district’s response to the audit, it outlined short- and long-term plans to remedy some of the violations. They included replacing smoke detectors in schools by October, posting evacuation maps by December and replacing fire extinguishers by June of 2017.

“The (Education Department) has determined that many of the district’s responses are inadequate, particularly responses … related to transportation, school facilities and school safety,” Vanderford told the Commission on Accreditation.

The district did clear itself of two violations since the findings were reported in June and the commission meeting on Tuesday. It remains in violation of 19 other standards.

The district must submit a corrective action plan and timeline within 60 days. If it does not fix the issues found in the report by the specified timeline, it faces withdrawal of accreditation status and sanctions from the state Education Department, which include allowing schools to participate 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 is not 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.