Gov. Bryant signals no takeover of JPS

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R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Gov. Phil Bryant touts the state’s economic achievements at the annual gathering of business leaders known as the Hob Nob.

The Jackson Public School district has likely avoided a state takeover.

Bryant told reporters after speaking at Hobnob Mississippi that he is working on another option for the district that includes several national organizations, as well as business and community leaders.

“It’d be easy for me just to sign that letter and go on with the rest of my life, (but) I think there is a better way for us to help the children of Jackson Public Schools,” Bryant said.

Bryant said a group of  “businessmen and women” are involved, and he has received offers for assistance from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Education Commission of the States, the Barksdale Reading Institute, and others he said he will name later. Bryant is chairman of Education Commission of the States.

“I’ve had so many people come forward and say ‘let us help with this’ that it’s hard to turn it down,” he said.

Bryant said this option could be funded without taxpayer dollars.

“I think we can raise a large amount of money, Bryant said. “We can find the revenue needed to implement the plan.”

This approach bucks the recommendations of both the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation and State Board of Education for a state takeover of the school district.

Although State Superintendent Carey Wright has said she respects the governor’s decision to take time and weigh out all of the options, she never wavered on the board and commission’s declaration of an extreme emergency situation in the the school district.

“We’ve made the recommendation for a declaration of an emergency and we’re still holding to that recommendation,” Wright said after a State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 19. “But if the governor so chooses to go a different direction then that’s his choice.”

The Department of Education’s recommendation would have Jackson Public Schools taken over by the state and placed into a District of Transformation under the leadership of Margie Pulley, who would serve as interim superintendent.

The recently revamped takeover model allows the state to take over a district once governor declares a state of emergency. The district loses local control – the school board would be abolished and replaced by the state board – and remains in that status under the interim superintendent until it earns an accountability grade of C or higher for five consecutive years.

The governor’s decision may give the community more of a voice in the process, something they have clamored for. Wright, State Board of Education Chair Rosemary Aultman, and Commission on School Accreditation Chair Heather Westerfield are currently involved in a federal lawsuit filed by JPS parents who claim they were denied due process in the takeover process. The litigation is still making its way through the courts.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and other elected officials, including some Jackson area legislators, have met with the governor since the takeover recommendation was made in an effort to forge a different approach to addressing the school district’s problems. Earlier this month, the district’s student ambassadors organized their own press conference urging the governor to give them a say in what happens to their district and warned that a takeover may result in apathetic behavior towards school.

“#OurJPS is overwhelmingly grateful that Governor Bryant has heard the voices of thousands of stakeholders, parents, faith leaders, students, the Mayor’s office, and the business community and allowed the Jackson community to maintain our voice in decisions that affect our students,” said Pam Shaw, convener of the Our JPS coalition which delivered a petition of more than 1,800 signatures opposing the takeover to the Department of Education.

“This is truly a great day for all of our children, and we look forward to working with the Governor and Mayor Lumumba, as well as proactively ensuring that any new partners in JPS’s improvement have the best interests of our children and the Jackson community at heart,” Shaw said.

Editor’s note: Jim Barksdale, a founder of the Barksdale Reading Institute, is a board member and funder of Mississippi Today.