Gov. Phil Bryant speaks to reporters in Jackson on Wednesday.

A self-proclaimed radical mayor and conservative governor have struck a deal to avoid a takeover of the state’s second largest school district.

In the latest twist involving who will control Jackson Public Schools, Gov. Phil Bryant said Thursday he and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba will work with a national organization to appoint a coalition to oversee an outside evaluation of the district.

“The easy thing for me to do would have been approve the state takeover,” Bryant said in a statement. “This is a better way forward for the 27,000 students in JPS.”

The governor’s announcement quashes weeks of speculation about whether the district would be taken over. The state Department of Education recommended the district be taken over, but needed Bryant to declare a state of emergency. Instead, what Bryant has called a “third option” will use a “Project Commission” comprised of Jackson-area stakeholders charged with developing criteria for an outside evaluation of the school district.

According to the release, each of the four JPS Board of Trustees members resigned. In a statement, Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray said each member resigned willingly and he will remain in place as the district’s leader.

“I will continue to serve as interim superintendent and am excited about the transformation the District is embarking upon,” Murray said. “I look forward to working with the new Board and remain committed to making the necessary improvements to achieve academic success.”

At a press conference after the announcement, Lumumba said the commission will have 15 members – the governor, City of Jackson, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation each appoint five. The mayor also said he would appoint new school board members “in very short order…”

“The Governor and I agree that the challenges faced by the Jackson Public School District provide an opportunity to create a new transformative vision for JPS,” Lumumba said in the statement. “Our children deserve an excellent school district. I am pleased to work together with Governor Bryant and the Kellogg Foundation to create this ‘Third Option’ for JPS. Many would say that the Governor and my political views represent oppositional poles; however, this collaboration is an excellent demonstration of what I have called ‘Operational Unity.’”

The commission will issue a request for proposal (RFP) for an outside entity to conduct an in-depth evaluation that develops solutions for the school district during the current school year. Implementing those solutions will begin with the 2018-19 school year.

The cost of the search and evaluation will be covered by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,  a philanthropic organization based in Battle Creek, Mich.

“Children are our greatest asset and we believe in their hopes, dreams and aspirations,”  La June Montgomery Tabron, Kellogg Foundation president and CEO said in the release. “Their future makes this work so important and when we stand together in partnership with the governor, mayor, JPS and the community, all in alignment, great things will happen.”

The study will do a deep dive into the educational and administrative deficiencies noted by state education officials and include solutions for them, as well as a price tag for correcting them.

This is where other businesses and foundations step in. Once the study is completed and presented to the commission, members will work with different organizations to finance solutions.

“The opportunity to form this coalition was too good to pass up,” Bryant said. “I am grateful for the membership’s commitment to bring transformative change to Jackson Public Schools.”

Bryant said Wednesday the Barksdale Reading Institute and Education Commission of the States (ECS), of which he is chairman, have offered to help with the process. The Mississippi Economic Council will also be a partner. ECS will work with the commission to develop the RFP criteria and “share best practices developed from successes in other states,” according to the release.

The Kellogg Foundation will work with the commission to conduct multiple listening sessions where “commissioners and local, state and national partners” meet with the community to hear their suggestions and concerns. Kellogg and other organizations will compile the information from the sessions into a separate report for the commission.

The committee will be charged with taking the consultant’s recommendations and implementing them.

“The governor’s plan to help JPS is one that is focused on collaboration,” said Laurie Smith, education policy advisor to the governor. “The research supports that transforming districts must involve comprehensive support, community involvement, collaborative governance and strategic investments.”

“As a former teacher I know that students learn from observing the adults around them,” Smith continued. “I can’t think of anything more important than students witnessing their community coming together and investing the time to get this plan for improvement right for the current and future of JPS.”

Mississippi is one of Kellogg’s priority places, meaning the state is one the organization recognizes “where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success.”

This partnership is modeled after similar efforts between Kellogg and Battle Creek Public Schools, where the foundation recently gave the district a five-year, $51 million grant to target low academic performance tied to racial inequity.

Prior to the Battle Creek announcement in May, Kellogg provided funding for the New York University Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools to conduct a study of the district and its community. The study found “structural bias and racial, socioeconomic and residential segregation create unequal access to opportunities in Battle Creek, produce inequitable educational outcomes, and limit some students’ pursuit of career and college readiness in the region,” according to a release.

The Mississippi Department of Education’s audit report on the Jackson Public School District is 680 pages.

In Jackson, whichever group is ultimately chosen to conduct the study will examine  problems in the public school system, many of which were outlined in a recent 680-page Mississippi Department of Education audit of Jackson Public Schools.

The audit found issues with reporting data accurately, district record-keeping, teachers working outside their areas of endorsement and unlicensed teaching staff, and an inadequate amount of school support services available to students. Last week, the district also received an F for the second year in a row in state accountability ratings.

Bryant’s plan is a departure from what the state department of education proposed. In September, the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation and State Board of Education each declared an extreme emergency situation existed in the district. If the governor had declared a state of emergency, it would have allowed the state to step in and change Jackson Public Schools into a district of transformation.

State Superintendent Carey Wright stood by the Mississippi Department of Education’s recommendations in a statement where she said the commission and state board “followed state law when they determined the Jackson Public School District was in a state of emergency that jeopardizes the safety, security and educational interests of the students in the district.”

Wright said as of Thursday, MDE “has not been asked to be part of this coalition.” The district is still required to develop a corrective action plan for the state board to approve, something Murray said the district is working on.

The district is still technically eligible for state takeover – its second consecutive F rating makes it a candidate for the state-run Achievement School District, which is not yet operational. The Department of Education can also downgrade the district’s accreditation status. Last week, the Commission on School Accreditation did not change the “probation status,” but that can be changed at any time.

According to the release, the department’s request for a state of emergency “remains active” and the Project Commission will work with its partner organizations to “ensure JPS stays on the path to success.”

The option proposed by Bryant includes components parents and community members have advocated for. Mississippi Department of Education officials are currently involved in a federal lawsuit that alleges parents were not given due process when the Department of Education was deciding whether to declare a state of emergency in the district.

“I just have to say that I’m pretty proud of Jackson as a whole,” said Zion Blount, a senior at Murrah High School.

Blount is one of several students who urged the governor to give them a say in the process during a press conference earlier this month. She said her fellow students were not too familiar with the specifics of the governor’s plan yet, but “I think they’re gonna be pretty stoked or excited about not getting taken over.”

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

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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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