JPS School Board member Jed Oppenheim Credit: JPS

As questions swirl about whether parents had enough say in the fate of the Jackson Public School District, the school board took action Tuesday night in an effort to ensure parents have control over at least one thing in their district — renaming three schools currently named after Confederate leaders.

The JPS Board of Trustees unanimously approved a motion to give the PTA and community the option to rename Jefferson Davis, George and Lee elementary schools before the 2018-19 school year.

The schools are named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Brig. Gen. James Zachariah George, and president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. During the 2016-17 school year (the most recent year for which enrollment figures have been finalized) JPS’ student population was 96 percent black.

Board member Jed Oppenheim suggested the motion during the “other business” portion of the meeting and said he wanted to bring forth the motion Tuesday because of the possibility that the board may not meet again.

The district is currently waiting to see if Gov. Phil Bryant declares a state of emergency which would allow the state to take it over. Until the governor acts, nothing changes — the current interim superintendent remains in place and the board continues to hold regularly scheduled meetings as they did Tuesday.

The board first announced it was ready to begin discussing the possibility of name changes during an August board meeting. Oppenheim said members never had the chance to meet in a committee and talk further because of other necessary meetings surrounding the results of the Mississippi Department of education’s full investigative audit.

Board counsel Dorian Turner advised members before the vote that whether they could even legally take the action was a “grey area.”

The current board policy on naming schools states they must be named “for persons of good character and prominence who have made outstanding contributions to the school
system,” and a “facility named to honor a person shall not be renamed except for compelling reasons.” Schools must be named in a resolution from the board.

“I wouldn’t tell you that it’s illegal to do it,” Turner said. “But I would tell you that it would be questionable and that if it were questioned later on, or, quite frankly if the name that someone comes up with or one of the local PTAs comes up with turns out to be something that one of you doesn’t think is appropriate or wouldn’t have gone along with, you would have essentially given away your authority to question that.”

In response, Oppenheim said he had no issue with giving away that responsibility to the community.

“I think the community and parents and guardians of our schools are perfectly capable of coming up with appropriate names that honor members of our community or simply just are place names (until an appropriate name is decided),” he said.

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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.

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