Thirty Jackson Public School parents have filed a federal lawsuit against state education officials for failing to include them in the decision-making process over the district’s fate.
Last Thursday, the state Board of Education, acting on a recommendation from the Commission on School Accreditation, recommended that Gov. Phil Bryant officially declare a state of emergency so the state could take over the school district and appoint an interim superintendent to lead it.
Attorney and Jackson Public School parent Dorsey Carson told Mississippi Today that he filed a federal lawsuit electronically Monday evening on behalf of himself and the other parents and all JPS students against State Superintendent Carey Wright, State Board of Education Chair Rosemary Aultman, and Commission on School Accreditation Chair Heather Westerfield.
The lawsuit claims the education leaders violated the parents and students 14th amendment right to due process and “engaged in unconstitutional actions that have harmed Plaintiffs, the JPS Schoolchildren and JPS Parents; and deprived Plaintiffs of their constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Education Department from any further proceedings concerning the Jackson Public School District “until such time as the Plaintiff JPS Schoolchildren and JPS Parents have been given all procedural and substantive due process to which they are entitled under the Due Process Clause.”
“It’s frustrating both as a parent and a lawyer,” Carson said. “There is a pretty clear understanding of the open meetings act. It doesn’t take a lawyer to read that and know that they have violated it.”
Last week, both the commission and state board separately determined that an extreme emergency situation exists that jeopardizes the safety, security and educational interests of the children in the district.
The board and commission’s decisions immediately drew ire from local officials and the community for a lack of transparency.
After about two hours of executive session on Thursday, Education Board members returned to announce to the public that they had voted and determined that an extreme emergency situation exists. They did not explain the vote count.
Reporters asked Aultman for the board’s vote after the meeting; she said the vote was 5-2, with members Johnny Franklin and Charles McClelland voting against it.
“Any time a public board discusses personnel, sensitive issues, safety issues, it’s typically done in executive session,” Aultman said. “Typically the vote is made in executive session and then you come out and announce the vote.”
When a reporter told Aultman she’d never seen that done before, she responded “That’s the way it’s been done here ever since I’ve been here.”
The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs “have been locked out of the process.” Both meetings took place in the fourth floor boardroom at MDE headquarters in downtown Jackson, which could seat about 90 people. Attendees who could not fit were turned away and directed into the auditorium to watch the meeting on a TV screen.
Making the decision in executive session left parents without a voice, Carson said.
“We (parents) don’t even get to hear concerns, plans … what’s going to happen to our teachers who have no due process rights and can be fired unilaterally?” Carson said.
A bill passed during the 2017 legislature allows the interim superintendent to reassign duties, responsibilities and personnel in a manner that “will best suit the needs of the district.”
MDE has determined an extreme emergency exists in a school district 19 times before JPS. The lawsuit lists several examples of district takeovers and deemed each of them unsuccessful. The lawsuit also stresses that each of the districts taken over were substantially smaller than JPS, which had an enrollment of almost 27,000 during the 2016-17 school year.
“The Defendants and MDE lack any track record of taking over any district this size,
much less taking over one successfully. Defendants and MDE do, however, have a record of failure in much, much smaller districts,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also states JPS parents and students were not interviewed or included in the audit process itself and policy and procedure does not allow it.
The Accreditation Commission recommendation that an emergency existed in the district followed an almost year-long investigative audit of the district.
While the full investigative audit report does cite the district for failing to provide parents with student handbooks, schedule parent-teacher meetings and involve them in other educational processes, the only parent voices included in the report are from media articles included at the end.
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.
In both meetings, MDE Chief of Accountability Paula Vanderford and JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray were each given 40 minutes to present their case and attorneys for each entity presented 10-minute closing arguments.
In his closing argument Thursday, JPS attorney Jim Keith said the commission only had 13 days to digest MDE’s audit report and did not even take the documents provided by JPS during the hearing with them into executive session (the state Education Board did take JPS documents with them into executive session).
MDE officials were not immediately available for comment.