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Jackson officials approved official documents Tuesday staving off a state takeover of Jackson Public Schools, but warned of tough decisions ahead for the district.
At a special called meeting, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and the city council discussed and ratified the official agreement between the City of Jackson, governor’s office, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Jackson Public Schools.
“I think it’s important that we recognize this in no way saves Jackson Public Schools,” Lumumba said. “What this does is provide an opportunity for us to get it right.”
The memorandum of understanding diverts the school district from a state takeover, although the Mississippi Department of Education’s recommendation for a takeover still stands.
Lumumba warned there will be some difficult choices to make.
“There are going to be some tough decisions here, but we can’t be afraid to do it,” Lumumba said. “If we’re serious and sincere about having it under local control then we have to be prepared to make the right decisions.”
He hinted those “right decisions” may be closing down elementary schools. He compared the district to DeSoto County School District, which has about 6,500 more students than Jackson but only about two-thirds as many schools.
“We’ve consulted all the king’s horsemen and all the king’s men, and it appears that it’s consistent that we’re going to have to close some schools, because our school system, our footprint as JPS grew at a time when the population was larger,” Lumumba said. “And so now it’s becoming difficult with our funding in order to accommodate all of those facilities, all of those schools, based on where our current resources and funding is.”
Officials unveiled the partnership last week. Instead of declaring a state of emergency, Gov. Phil Bryant said he and Lumumba will work with the Kellogg Foundation to appoint a coalition to oversee an outside evaluation of the district.
City of Jackson chief administrative officer Robert Blaine told council members there is a “very short window” to implement this new partnership. He said the plan is to announce the 15 members of the commission on Thursday so they can be officially appointed soon after. The governor, City of Jackson, and Kellogg Foundation will each appoint five members.
Once the commission is in place, “we will also put forth a full slate of school board members as well,” Blaine said. All four of the school board members serving prior to the governor’s announcement resigned as a part of the negotiations.
Lumumba said the resignations were not a critique of the members.
“We’ve accepted them (the resignations) not as any indictment of members of the school board, but giving us a fresh start, fresh look at what we’re doing and making certain that we’re ready to move forward,” he said.
The district’s Board of Trustees is comprised of seven members from each of the city’s wards.
Blaine said the administration is currently in talks with possible appointees. Lumumba told city council he may recommend former member Letitia Simmons-Johnson be reappointed to the board. Simmons-Johnson joined the board in August as Lumumba’s first and only school board appointee – filling the rest of the open spots was put on hold as the school district navigated a possible state takeover.
Once the commission is in place, there will be a series of community conversations over the next three to four months where the public can share the “challenges and aspirational vision” for the district, Blaine said. At the same time, the commission will issue a request for proposal for an outside entity to do an evaluation of the district and align those results with the goals put forth by the community.
Kellogg will fund the evaluation process and help with the cost of the community conversations, Blaine said.
The results of the public conversations and outside evaluation will be used to develop a strategy to fix the district’s academic and administrative issues.
Lumumba acknowledged there is still much to work out, but the parties involved in the memorandum need to take action.
“If we do nothing, if we sit on our hands, then our school system could still be taken,” he said.
The Mississippi Department of Education said last week that the school district is still required to submit a corrective action plan in response to an investigative audit that found it in violation of 24 out of 32 state accreditation standards. The school district’s two consecutive F accountability ratings also make it an eligible candidate for the state-run Achievement School District, although it is not yet operational.