Jackson Public Schools employees are actively working to avoid a state takeover, but many issues remain before that threat no longer looms, district officials said Thursday.

The Board of Trustees met Thursday morning for a three-hour work session to discuss the district’s progress and pitfalls on its corrective action plan, or CAP.

The district is currently in the midst of an investigative audit by the Mississippi Department of Education which last year found the district in violation of 22 of the 32 state accreditation benchmarks.

To fix that, the district was required to submit a CAP for the state to approve — their initial plan was rejected. A new plan was accepted in November.

JPS launched its own internal audit soon afterwards to monitor the work being done to correct issues highlighted by the Education Department.

“This is a work in progress,” said interim superintendent Freddrick Murray. “Things didn’t get the way they are in a short period of time, it took decades in some cases.”

On Thursday, the board met with representatives from Bailey Education Group, a consulting agency hired by the board to help them navigate the audit process.

Bailey Education Group’s director of leadership development Pat Ross said that after MDE concludes its audit, getting off of probation and fixing the systemic issues within the district will take an extended amount of time.

“Historically when you have a corrective action plan it takes at minimal a year to address, depending on what the problems are and how deep they are,” Ross said.

Education advisor Ann Moore of Bailey Education Group said the district has made strides on many of the standards, essentially checkpoints JPS must demonstrate they are competent in as part of the CAP.

JPS appears to be compliant in the standards which address licensed librarians, pre-kindergarten requirements, and Carnegie credits, which relates to the amount of instruction time directly spent with teachers, she said.

The district is far from in the clear, however. Moore said her review of reports from the internal audit show there are still many standards that show inconsistency and a lack of progress.

Transportation and safety issues still plague the district as well. Moore said internal audit reports show “20 to 30 percent  of the buses currently arrive late daily” because there are not enough buses or personnel, and some drivers have to double up on routes.

Students are missing instruction time because of this, and when they do arrive at school “there are continued problems at multiple schools with basic safety intake procedures every morning,” she said. Many schools have inoperable metal detectors, not enough video cameras, and lack sufficient security personnel to conduct the intake procedures properly or at all, Moore said.

District officials have failed to meet some of the timelines set in their own corrective action plan, she said. Murray described an example for the board — the plan called for a review of district facilities by March, but that process only began this week, he said.

Part of the issue, he said, is the district has a breakdown in communication with MDE. JPS officials were unsure if they needed to put out a request for proposal in order to find a group to conduct the study, but could not get a clear answer in time, he said.

“It’s not an open line of communication where we can just pick up the phone and call someone at the state. There is a process,” Murray said. “It was our thought that an RFP would be sufficient to cover the standard that we started.”

It’s not sufficient, Moore said. To be compliant, the district needs to “follow all the way through” with each of the steps necessary in the standard, not just file an RFP.

Board members said they need to take a more active role as well.

Rickey Jones, vice president of the JPS executive board Credit: JPS

“A sense of urgency was not put in place, particularly as a board,” member Rickey Jones said.

If there are any questions about the standards in the future, “we have to get on the phone, we have to do what we have to do,” board member Richard Lind said. “We have to go down to their office. Get some clarity. We cannot afford to not know.”

The district is also struggling to hire qualified teachers, Moore said.

“That is persistent across the district, where I believe almost every school in the district has one or more teachers in the classrooms with students and they have no license,” Moore said.

Murray said there are a “myriad of reasons” why qualified teachers aren’t being hired. JPS and districts across the state are facing a teacher shortage, he said, and when people do apply some candidates may have a teaching license that hasn’t been renewed; others are qualified but have issues with their background checks, he said.

Moving forward, the board asked for a weekly report from the district on qualified teachers who interview with the district but are not hired.

Other issues revolve around enrollment requirements and attendance data. Moore said internal audit reports show there are consistent errors in attendance reports, which can affect school funding. Murray said the district is working on hiring people to work on attendance reporting.

The district also needs to work on the standards that address student records and graduation requirements, Moore said.

Lesson planning is another weakness in the district, she said — teachers are not submitting them or they are not written in the correct format.

JPS Executive Board President Beneta Burt Credit: JPS

“Why are we still having this problem?” board president Beneta Burt asked. “Is it that our teachers don’t get it?”

That’s possible, Murray said. This issues ties into the lack of qualified teachers, he said. The district is now holding principals accountable for this and offering weekly technical assistance to help fix the issue, he said.

School libraries need more current materials, something both Moore and district officials have acknowledged will be difficult to fund. A lack of money is not an excuse though, Murray said, and he and the board will do what is necessary to become compliant in that standard.

Ross also briefed the board on its role in the CAP — the audit found that board policies are applied inconsistently among other issues, he said. He reminded members that they cannot act “outside of policy” and should not speak for the board as a whole outside of board meetings.

“Outside of the board room, you are just a person,” Ross said. “You happen to be a board member, but you are not a decision maker.”

MDE will not clear any individual standard until the investigative audit is completed. Next week, Moore said she will begin looking at documents and evidence which shows the district has taken corrective actions. Later in the week she’ll present a summary to the board.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.