Fredrick Murray, interim superintendent for Jackson Public Schools Credit: Jackson Public Schools

Jackson Public School District officials must act immediately to fix major issues in school safety and instructional practices to avoid state takeover, state Education Department officials said Thursday.

The strict warning came as the state Board of Education voted 4-1 to accept the school district’s revised plan for addressing deficiencies noted in an April audit.

“My concerns are around the district’s ability to implement the corrective action plan,” State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told the board. “Crafting a plan is one thing, but executing a plan is an entirely different matter.”

Paula Vanderford, director of the Education Department’s Accreditation Office, told the board about “alarming” reports of a teacher physically pulling a student back into line and one being verbally abusive toward students at an elementary school in Jackson.

Additionally, Vanderford said Education Department staff reported that in a visit to a high school earlier this month, they observed students walking through and setting off metal detectors without being inspected, school buses arriving as late as 9:30 a.m., students roaming the halls and classes that did not have teachers in them.

Those reports prompted a call earlier this week between Wright and Jackson Public Schools Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray, and Jackson school board chair Beneta Burt and vice chair Rickey Jones.

Vanderford said that despite raising many of these same issues with the release of the initial April audit findings in June, there still “remains a serious concern that the district does not have a sense of urgency to resolve these issues immediately.”

She reminded board members that the Commission on School Accreditation has authority to recommend withdrawal of the district’s accreditation status.

If the district loses its accreditation status, schools will not be allowed to participate in 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 governor could also declare a state of emergency in the school district, which would lead to the overhaul of district leadership and the appointment of a conservator by the state. A state of emergency is declared when the safety and educational interests of students are jeopardized, a school district is deemed failing for two consecutive years, more than half of the district’s schools are designated as failing, a lack of financial resources, and/or failure to meet minimum academic standards.

The visits by Education Department staff members follow an April audit of the district that found a slew of accreditation violations, resulting in the state putting Jackson Public Schools on probationary status. Since then, the district received an ‘F’ rating on its 2015-2016 accountability ratings, and former Superintendent Cedrick Gray resigned.

The district has been working under Murray to finalize its corrective action plan, which was approved by the board with Thursday’s 4-1 vote, and fix the deficiencies.

“The plan is designed to ensure those kinds of things, if they’re happening, don’t happen moving forward,” Murray told reporters after the board meeting. “Yes, that was surprising to hear that those kinds of things are taking place and we’re going to be addressing that. Again, we own what’s happening, we’re not disputing what they saw.”

Murray also said while areas of concern in the district are being targeted, there are schools that have made a “180 degree turn” from last year.

“There are five new high school principals, different than last year, so the leadership has totally changed and there are new systems in place,” Murray said.

Board member Johnny Franklin voted against approving the corrective action plan.

“This is an abject failure on behalf of the adult population of that district that gets paid good money every day that’s killing kids,” Franklin said. “In thinking about do I vote for this or not … unless there’s a change in other things – the expectations and performance of adults, I don’t think that’s within our control to a degree.”

In November, the state Board of Education rejected a first version of the plan, saying there were not enough specifics for both actions and timelines in which the actions would be completed.

The district has worked with Education Department officials to improve the plan. It includes actions to correct issues ranging from inaccurate reporting of data, teachers not holding valid licenses or endorsements for subjects they are teaching to incomplete graduation records for 114 of 197 students records reviewed, among others.

Vanderford told the board that Education Department staff members will begin making unannounced school visits in January and continue to closely monitor the district’s implementation of the plan.

Jackson Public Schools was last placed on probation in 2012, when the Education Department found it in violation of federal law regarding special-needs students.

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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.