The state Board of Education determined Thursday that an extreme emergency situation in Jackson Public Schools warrants state takeover. Local school and city officials vowed to fight the decision.
After about two hours of discussion in executive session, the board announced their decision that an extreme emergency situation exists in the state’s second largest school district. The move came in the wake of an 18-month full investigative audit that found the district in violation of 24 out of 32 accreditation standards.
Board chair Rosemary Aultman announced that JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray would be replaced by Margie Pulley, currently the conservator of the Tunica County School District. Pulley was not immediately available for comment.
In an article earlier this year, Mississippi Today recounted how the Tunica schools had experienced a turnaround under Pulley.
“The Board was compelled to intervene because board members are extremely concerned about the safety, security and educational interests of the students in the Jackson Public School District,” Aultman said in a statement. “All students in Jackson, and the state, deserve a quality education that will take them as far as their gifts will let them go. The Board is obligated to act when conditions in a school district jeopardizes students’ education.”
After the announcement, Murray had little to say, simply noting that the process was new for the district. JPS board member Jed Oppenheim did not mince words.
“The state of Mississippi has never cared about black children in Jackson,” Oppenheim said. “What we are seeing is a recolonization of the city by the state. This is not about children, this is about money and this is about power.”
Aultman fired back at that statement.
“This means that the board and the state are critically concerned about black children and that’s exactly why we have done this,” she said. “This is about children. It is about trying to provide the very best for the children of the Jackson Public Schools.”
With the board announcement, the district (which has an enrollment of close to 27,000 students and is 96 percent black) will wait on Gov. Phil Bryant’s decision on whether to declare a state of emergency, which would allow the state to officially appoint Pulley. Aultman said the board worked out a contract with Pulley during the executive session.
A Bryant spokesman told The Clarion-Ledger that the governor will consider the recommendation, adding that there is no timetable for him to make a decision.
Until then, it’s business as usual, said MDE Chief of Accountability Paula Vanderford. Nothing changes in the district until the governor declares a state of emergency. If he does, then the school board is dissolved and the state board will serve in its place. The district would have an interim superintendent until the district earns a grade of C or higher for five years, according to an MDE press release.
Even if the governor declares a state of emergency, the decision of whether JPS loses its accreditation falls to the Commission on School Accreditation. The district is currently on probation, but if its accreditation was withdrawn completely there would be one year before that affects extracurricular activities.
During that year, the district can petition for a hearing on the downgrade and appear before the commission to show it is in compliance with accreditation standards. If after that one year period the district is still in noncompliance, schools in the district can only participate in up to 50 percent of regular season sports and none of them can be division, district, or regional games.
JPS parent Albert Sykes said the “unfair” and “unjust” decision left him feeling cheated.
“We have a superintendent who’s from this district who understands us and knows us and went in there for two days and fought as hard as he could to make a case for our kids,” he said, speaking about Murray. He also mentioned Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who has been outspoken against a takeover and attended both meetings this week.
“Everybody in this city is here for our kids. It’s not about adults, it’s not about what happens to adults,” Sykes said. “This is about putting kids in our center. Today MDE has showed us they don’t have a commitment to putting our children in their best interest in the center.”
Thursday’s meeting followed the same format as the Commission on School Accreditation meeting Wednesday, where members voted 10-1 that an extreme emergency situation exists in the district. Commission chair Heather Westerfield said in a statement that the situation “jeopardizes the safety, security and educational interests of the children involved in the schools in the district.”
Vanderford and Murray each had 40 minutes to present their case to the board. Members then questioned both of them, and lawyers for both sides presented closing arguments.
Board members were forced to make their decision based on two very different arguments. Vanderford’s presentation reiterated issues brought up to the commission a day earlier —JPS failed to implement board policies, graduated ineligible students, and had several problems with test security.
Vanderford told the board preliminary accountability data shows JPS will receive an “F” rating and that more than 50 percent of its schools will be rated F as well. Accountability ratings will be officially released to the public in October.
In contrast, Murray doubled down on the point that JPS has made substantial progress since the the audit process and conclusion. He used the same presentation the commission saw Wednesday to illustrate how the district has responded in the last year and a half.
“We know that 12 months ago is vastly different from today, and we want you to think about that as you make a decision,” Murray said.
Since he took office as interim superintendent in November 2016, the district reorganized into regions, created its own compliance department to internally monitor standards, revamped its transportation department and implemented other changes, he said.
Special Assistant Attorney General Erin Meyer said in her closing argument that JPS officials demonstrated “repeated negligence” by failing to correct the issues highlighted in the audit, and students in the district were being systematically denied a quality education. She acknowledged that district officials have addressed some safety issues but school districts have been taken over for far less egregious violations than the ones JPS was there for, she said.
“It takes time, we get that, but they haven’t focused on education,” Meyer said. “They haven’t focused on the instruction.”
Meyer also told the board that Thursday morning JPS attempted to seek a motion for a temporary restraining order against MDE in order to buy more time to respond to the audit process.
Attorney Jim Keith, who represented JPS, said the judge did not deny it but said he did not have proper jurisdiction to rule on the issue.
The audit concluded July 31, and procedure rules allow MDE 30 days to compile the findings into a report. That report was delivered to the district on Aug. 31.
Keith elaborated on the issue of time during his closing argument as well, noting that on Wednesday the commission had 13 days to digest MDE’s audit report but did not even take the documents provided by JPS during the hearing with them into executive session.
He urged the board to reconsider the commission’s recommendation.
“We all know taking over a district is traumatic to the community, it’s traumatic to the students. And we don’t need to make a mistake here,” Keith said.
“Sure there’s been past mistakes, but I can tell you in my 35 years of dealing with school districts I have never seen a district get more aggressive in trying to address these accreditation issues than this district has done over the last several months.”
Interim JPS board president Camille Stutts Simms said she was grossly disappointed by the decision, and the board would be working with their attorneys to figure out the next step.
Jackson City Council member Melvin Priester Jr. lambasted the board’s decision to take up the matter in executive session, telling reporters that action showed “the fix was in” and members “should have had the courage and the conviction to at least be able to come in front of the public and say why they were voting the way they were.”
Aultman said after the meeting that the vote was 5-2, with members Charles McClelland and Johnny Franklin voting against the decision.
“That just proves to me that they did not come here in good faith to have a real look at the evidence,” Priester said. “They made up their decision before they got here this morning and we are going to fight this vigorously because our children deserve better than this. We are committed to making JPS better, but this is not the way to do it.”