Paula Vanderford, the head of accreditation at the Mississippi Department of Education, explains why she advised the Board of Education not to accept Jackson Public School District's corrective action plan. Credit: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

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The state Board of Education on Thursday rejected Jackson Public Schools’ plan to correct deficiencies in school safety, record keeping and teacher licensure. The board said it will re-examine a modified plan next month.

Paula Vanderford, executive director of the Accreditation Staff for the Education Department, told the board that the plan did not have enough specific steps in certain areas.

“It ranges from just some simple clarifications, adjustments of timelines. But there are a couple of standards we’d like to see … (JPS) specifically outline what that implementation looks like rather than just get a broad statement,” Vanderford said.

For example, Vanderford said, the district said its evaluation of graduation records would be done by May of next year, but that wouldn’t afford enough time for students missing any courses to complete them in time to graduate. The Education Department cited JPS for not having consistent and accurate information proving that every student who graduated in the past two years met state graduation requirements.

Jackson Public School District spokesperson Sherwin Johnson said interim superintendent Freddrick Murray and school board President Beneta Burt will be meeting with the Office of Accreditation, which will “provide feedback regarding the corrective actions and timelines to assist the District in revising the CAP.”

As a result of the Education Department audit, the district’s accreditation status was downgraded from “accredited” to “probation” in August.

Vanderford also said her department will go back and look at Standard 1, which states that “the school board assigns all executive and administrative duties to the superintendent, who is properly licensed and chosen in the manner prescribed by law.” The audit found that policies were inconsistently applied throughout the district. In particular, implementation of discipline policies administered by the principal are often overturned by the superintendent or his administration, the Education Department said.

Because the district’s current superintendent Cedrick Gray resigned last week, the department will have to revisit the plan to ensure the future superintendent is involved.

Education Department officials, including State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright, will meet with JPS officials Friday morning to begin refining the plan so that it can go before the board again next month.

The citations of the audit, which was done in April, include allegations that Gray often overturned 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 the lack of documentation around graduation requirements.

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.

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.

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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.