Legislative leaders Thursday added their voice to questions about school district takeovers in the wake of an Mississippi Department of Education recommendation that the state take over Jackson Public Schools.
House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, asked State Superintendent Carey Wright to clarify how the process of taking over a school district works. Wright and State Board of Education Chair Rosemary Aultman and State Superintendent Carey Wright addressed the joint legislative budget committee to review the Department of Education’s budget request for fiscal year 2019.
Last week, both the Commission on School Accreditation and state board determined that an extreme emergency situation exists in the Jackson district that jeopardized the safety and educational interests of the students.
A number of parents of Jackson Public Schools students have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the state takeover from proceeding. They contend that parents of students in the district were not adequately informed and consulted during the audit process that led to the emergency declaration.
The decision of whether the school is taken over by the state is up to Gov. Phil Bryant, who said Wednesday that he is in no rush to make a decision without completing his due diligence, according to the Jackson Free Press.
A bill passed during the 2017 legislative session revamped the takeover model and changed the terminology for the person in charge of a district following a takeover from “conservator” to “interim superintendent.”
Under the law, if the governor declares a state of emergency in a school district, it is taken over by the state and becomes a District of Transformation. The district remains in that status under the interim superintendent until it earns an accountability grade of C or higher for five consecutive years.
Wright stressed this point, noting that in the old model the focus was on fixing accreditation violations instead of instructional programs. She said that aspect of the takeover had been “lost in conversation” in media reports on the JPS situation.
“This isn’t just bounce in, get the accreditation violations cleared up and come out,” she said. “It is you stay until that instructional program is sound for five consecutive years.”
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asked Wright to explain the role of the commission. Wright said the 15-member group is comprised of educators and non-educators from across the state, and when one member’s term rolls off he or she is replaced by a new member from the same congressional district.
The state superintendent recommends the commission members and they are confirmed by the state board. According to the Department of Education, the commission is composed of two teachers, two principals, two district superintendents, two school board members, and seven non-educators.
When a district is audited by the state, the commission can consider whether it should downgrade the district’s accreditation status and can also decide if an extreme emergency situation exists. If they do make the emergency recommendation, the state board also meets to determine if the situation exists. If it agrees, the board then asks the governor to declare a state of emergency, as has happened with JPS.