A group of roughly 100 parents, community members and educators descended on the Mississippi Department of Education headquarters on Tuesday to protest the potential state takeover of Jackson Public School District.
The group, called OurJPS, delivered a petition of more than 1,800 signatures opposing the takeover to the department, and a slew of speakers ranging from Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba Jr., to Murrah High School teacher Olivia Cote all asked the state not to declare a state of emergency in the school district.
Lumumba pointed out the “unprecedented” nature of the department’s practice of issuing a limited audit outlining violations and then immediately beginning a larger scale investigative audit at the same time the district worked to correct the violations found in the initial report.
“I hesitate to impose or to suggest nefarious intent on anyone unless I see it as being warranted. In having conversations with the state board superintendent, I have been assured that this was to be an objective process in which the facts were simply going to be presented,” Lumumba said. “After discovering the efforts that have been made to take control of our school system specifically by that leadership, I impose nefarious intent.”
Lumumba, along with the authors of the petition, claim that a “substantial number” of the audit findings have been corrected by the district.
Although a handful of standards were listed as compliant by MDE, the most recent, nearly 700-page audit report made clear the district had not corrected a number of findings, including problems that had been highlighted when the limited audit was released in 2016.
These failures include educational issues such as inadequately certified teachers, all high schools failing to provide the required amount of instructional time to students, and failure to implement drop-out programs and programs that encourage student attendance, among others.
The district, which is currently rated as an F by the Mississippi Department of Education, had corrected standards related to its financial management and one standard requiring full-time principals be employed at each school.
Parent and former city council candidate Dorsey Carson questioned how state takeovers have worked for other school districts that have been placed under conservatorship.
“Let’s not kid ourselves about what this is really about. This is about control, paternalism. This is about somebody who wants to make money off of our backs,” Carson said. “I want to ask the state of Mississippi: what is your success story? You tell me.”
Cote, a Murrah High School 9th grade English teacher, said the findings in the MDE’s audit “do not reflect her everyday experiences” at school, and suggested the state should consider providing more resources to the district instead of a takeover.
“We need the resources to be able to take care of our children. Resources for smaller classrooms, support services, technology, and to fix our worn down infrastructure — resources that could help us deliver the high quality education that our children deserve,” she said.
The rally was held ahead of the state department’s Commission on School Accreditation meeting Wednesday to make a recommendation regarding the takeover to the State Board of Education. The state board will then consider the commission’s recommendation at its meeting on Thursday.
If a state of emergency is declared and approved by Gov. Phil Bryant, the district’s superintendent and school board will be fired and a conservator put in place.
The move follows the release of a series of audits that began in April of last year. The audits found the district in violation of 24 of 32 state accreditation standards, or the guidelines and performance standards for schools in Mississippi.