JPS Superintendent Cedrick Gray tells attendees of a town hall meeting at Siwell Middle School that the district is taking action to correct the deficiencies found in a recent state audit.  Credit: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Jackson school leaders made a stop at Siwell Middle School in West Jackson on Thursday night to report their accomplishments in the wake of a critical state audit of the district that resulted in the downgrade of its accreditation status.

Superintendent Cedrick Gray, along with the district’s directors of academics, transportation and security, told a crowd of parents and principals that the district is revamping its record-keeping process, ordering and replacing school buses and fire extinguishers, and working to create a closer relationship with Jackson and Hinds County law enforcement.

He also said because the board refinanced the district’s debt, it has $4 million of savings to work with to fix the problems found in the state’s audit. Those funds will go towards the purchase of new school buses and air conditioner replacement and repairs, among other major expenses.

An April audit by the state education department of 22 schools in the Jackson Public School District revealed issues with school and facility safety, transportation and graduation requirements. A review of seniors who graduated in 2015 shows that 25 out of 193 students’ records showed they did not meet graduation requirements, the audit stated. 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.

Jackson’s Chief Academic Officer Freddrick Murray told the crowd that he can say, “without reservation,” all students who receive a diploma from a JPS school have met the graduation requirements.

Murray explained the audit found the hard copies of students’ files contained incomplete and missing information, but he said all of the records available on the state’s electronic database of student information was complete.

“It’s far from the truth that students aren’t meeting graduation requirements,” he said.

The audit also stated the district did not inspect its school buses regularly and that there was no documentation showing bus drivers had completed the required two hours of professional development per semester. It also noted that school buses are late getting students to and from school.

Derick Williams, the executive director of transportation at JPS, said they have ordered four new school buses, one of which has already been delivered and three of which will be delivered in the next two weeks. Gray said “at least 10” school buses will be ordered total. The extra buses will ensure if one bus is having problems, another bus can be used in its place and not delay students going to and from school.

GPS devices are being installed in all of its buses.

“This will help us to make sure we’re getting our scholars to their destination in a timely manner and also help our staff to see where we’re falling short,” Williams said.

Gray and others also noted fire extinguishers have been ordered and some already have replaced outdated units.

The head of the district’s campus enforcement said its members have been meeting regularly with the Jackson Police Department and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office to share information about what’s going on in the schools that affects the communities and vice versa.

District officials also indicated they have assigned a school resource officer to every secondary school and “more individuals” are at the front of each school in addition to the metal detectors there.

The district must submit its entire plan to correct the deficiencies to the state by Oct. 20.

“The enhancements are already underway, and the board of trustees already has a draft response,” Gray said.

The next town hall meeting will be held at Forest Hill High School on Tuesday.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.