Gov. Bryant: Fate of Jackson schools put off until October

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Gov. Phil Bryant

Gov. Phil Bryant said Friday that he needs more information before he can make a decision on the fate of Jackson Public Schools.

In an interview on SuperTalk Mississippi, Bryant said he plans to wait until the State Board of Education releases the district’s accountability rating at their monthly meeting scheduled for Oct. 19.

“I think it would be prudent upon our part to wait until at least that day to see what the decision of the State Board of Education will be in rating the school district,” Bryant said. “That will go a long way helping us make this final decision.”

On the show, Bryant said he and his staff are currently working their way through the 680-page audit report MDE released Aug. 31, as well as the response from the school district.

Last week, the Commission on School Accreditation and state Board of Education both determined that an extreme emergency situation exists in the school district that jeopardizes the safety and educational interests of its 27,000 students. The decisions came in the wake of an 18-month full investigative audit that found the district in violation of 24 out of 32 accreditation standards.

During the meetings where the emergency determinations were made, state education officials told commission members and board members that preliminary accountability data shows that the Jackson Public School system will receive an “F” rating — and that more than 50 percent of its schools will be rated F as well. The official rating will be announced at the October board meeting.

Bryant also said he’d met with Jackson legislators, JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba this week.

Lumumba told Mississippi Today the meeting was positive and he appreciated the governor’s decision not to take immediate action.

“I appreciate and respect that — it’s more than what the accreditation (committee) did,” Lumumba said, referencing a common complaint that commission members did not take the two large binders of documentation the school district provided to them into executive session when they deliberated whether an extreme emergency exists in the district.

Bryant said he has “total confidence” in the state board, but it’s his job as governor to do his due diligence to understand both sides of the argument.

Both the governor and legislators acknowledged that regardless of whether the district is taken over, there are issues that need to be resolved. The district received an F rating last fall, and in August 2016 the commission downgraded the district’s accreditation status to probation.

“Quite honestly we all know the Jackson public school systems need help,” Bryant said on the show.

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Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson

Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, said the Jackson delegation reached out to Bryant and he accepted. The meeting was “cordial” and the governor listened to their concerns, he said.

“Our desire is to keep it (JPS) in the hands of the citizens of the city of Jackson,” Norwood said. “Obviously we realized it was his decision to make, but he was very responsive to points we had.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, also said the meeting went well.

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Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

“The governor emphasized that he was listening to all of the parties; that he was not going to be a rubber stamp and was thinking about this very carefully and deliberately,” Blount said.  “We believe that there need to be a variety of options between complete state takeover and the status quo. And we’re open to working with the governor and the mayor in trying to figure that out.”

If Bryant does declare a state of emergency, the state would take over JPS and place it into the District of Transformation under the leadership of interim superintendent Margie Pulley. The district would remain under the interim superintendent until it earns an accountability grade of C or higher for five consecutive years. The school board would be abolished and replaced by the state board.

Contributing: R.L. Nave and Kate Royals