The Jackson Public School District is a step closer to possible state takeover after an accreditation commission announced Wednesday an extreme emergency situation exists in the district.
“Based on the evidence heard today, the Commission on School Accreditation determined an extreme emergency exists in the Jackson Public School District that jeopardizes the safety, security and educational interests of the children involved in the schools in the district,” commission chair Heather Westerfield told reporters after the meeting.
The Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation voted 10-1 in favor of the recommendation. Board member Ann Jones, who represents Jackson, was the only person to vote against the motion. Member Sean Brewer did not vote.
The decision came after hours of presentation, debate and discussion between commission members and Mississippi Department of Education and Jackson Public School District officials over the results of an 18-month investigative audit that found the district in violation of 24 out of 32 accreditation standards.
MDE Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford presented those findings to the commission Tuesday. She said JPS failed to sustain a safe school climate, govern appropriately or perform well academically. Vanderford is also the executive secretary for the commission.
Interim JPS Superintendent Freddrick Murray rebutted the Department of Education’s findings. He repeatedly stressed that the district today looks much different from what it did six or 12 months ago when the audit process was underway, and he claimed some of the findings were simply inaccurate.
“I think we still have a significant amount of work to do, but what we’ve done in seven months is more than, probably, what was done in seven years,” Murray said during the meeting. “We’re moving in the right direction.”
Whether the district is taken over lies in the hands of the State Board of Education, which meets Thursday at 10 a.m. Both MDE and JPS will have one more chance to argue their cases before the board, which can accept or reject the commission’s recommendation.
If the board decides an emergency situation exists, it can ask Gov. Phil Bryant to declare a state of emergency, which would allow the board to appoint an interim conservator or private entity to helm the district, or have the state take it over completely.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Murray said he would have no comment on the decision until the State Board of Education meeting Thursday morning, but thanked the community for their support.
Much of Wednesday’s debate centered around graduation requirements, policy and procedure surrounding testing, and support for students with disabilities.
According to the audit, there were multiple issues involving students and graduation requirements – one of the findings stated that 149 of the 1,404 students who graduated in the 2016-17 school year did not meet requirements but the district allowed them to participate in graduation exercises.
“Our stance is that the information in the report is not accurate,” Murray said when asked by a commission member if he believed the audit report was totally incorrect.
Vanderford replied, adding that she has worked for MDE during 16 of the 19 times the state has declared an emergency situation exists in a school district and not one of the districts involved said it agreed with MDE’s findings.
“So that might explain, not being comical, why there is a difference in opinion. But I will say the burden of compliance is on the district,” she said.
In closing arguments to the commission, attorney Jim Keith argued on the district’s behalf that state takeovers need to be a far more collaborative process. MDE took 18 months to complete the full audit and gave the district nine business days to respond to its 680-page report, he said. In contrast, the commission had just hours to consume the nearly 1,000 page document provided by the district, he said.
“Failure to allow time to respond is extremely prejudicial to the district and it does not allow you the opportunity to see in full detail what the district has done to correct deficiencies,” Keith said.
Special Assistant Attorney General Erin Meyer presented the closing argument for MDE and told the commission “even under a corrective action plan with technical assistance and throughout the entire investigative audit the district failed to demonstrate any sense of urgency.”
She also revealed the district’s previously unannounced, preliminary “F” accountability rating for the 2016-17 school year, which was set to be released to the public in October.
“The time has long expired” for a second chance, Meyer said. “Let me be clear. The MDE is not trying to pull the rug out from under the district. All districts statewide are held to the same 32 standards. These are not new for JPS and they weren’t new 18 months ago. The buck stops here.”
A day earlier, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Jackson City Council members joined approximately 100 parents, community members and educators who rallied at MDE headquarters to protest the possible takeover and deliver a petition opposing it, which contained more than 1,800 signatures. Many of them attended the meeting Wednesday. Jackson legislators, the mayor and others sat in the main meeting room, and MDE directed other attendees to an overflow area where they could listen via teleconference.
Lumumba, a JPS graduate, spoke at a press conference immediately after the decision.
“There is no possible way that you could have heard the arguments and the inconsistencies that were articulated today and have reached a near unanimous decision,” he said.
Lumumba said he would work with people who recorded the meeting to deliver it to those who could not attend “so that everyone can be aware of what’s going on in Mississippi today.”
“It is about time that we decide to turn the page in Mississippi and no longer continue to go down the same road that has historically left us behind. We have declared that it is going to be a new day and we will not stand silently as they rob our children of an education.”