For those who consider school children one of the state’s most priceless possessions, it makes sense that a group deciding the fate of Jackson Public Schools took would meet at an art museum.
At the first meeting of the group, known informally as the “Better Together Commission,” the 15-member task painted a broad picture about the organization’s monumental task: stave off a state takeover of Mississippi’s largest urban school district and its $280 million annual budget.
Dr. Freddrick Murray, the interim JPS superintendent, shared the story of a second grader at Pecan Park Elementary who likes tinkering with electrical systems and wants to be an inventor.
“Our goal should be to create an environment where they can all be whatever they choose to be,” said Murray, who is not a member of the 15-person commission, but did provide an overview of the district for commissioners.
The commission meeting marked the beginning of the next chapter for the troubled 27,000-student district.
In September, the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation and State Board of Education determined that JPS was under an extreme emergency situation and recommended a state takeover. That followed the results of an 18-month investigative audit that found the district in violation of 24 out of 32 accreditation standards.
The declaration threw Jackson City Hall and the governor’s office into chaos, with the capital city’s new mayor desperately hoping to avoid a takeover and Gov. Phil Bryant, who would need to sign a takeover declaration to make it official, mulling whether to wade into the Jackson Public School morass.
The commission was a third way out that Bryant settled on after discussions with local and state officials and interested private citizens and education advocates.
The commission’s main work is to hire an outside company to perform a thorough review of the district’s problems and come up with solutions.
The cost of the search and evaluation will be covered by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Battle Creek, Mich. The Barksdale Reading Institute and Education Commission of the States (ECS), of which Bryant is chairman, will also be involved.
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.
One of the first actions the commission took Wednesday morning was naming as co-chairs Charles McClelland, who sits on the state board of education, and Ivye Allen, the president of the Foundation for the Mid-South.
The most urgent matter facing the board is developing the request for proposals to hire a turnaround consultant. Because of that urgency, the commission will meet every week at 4:30 p.m. so that teachers and parents can attend the meetings. A regular venue has not been determined.
While the commission meeting was going on, the Jackson City Council was approving the appointments of four new members of the Jackson school board: Ed Sivak, Letitia Simmons-Johnson, Barbara Hilliard and Jeanne Hairston.
Editor’s note: Jim Barksdale, a Mississippi Today board member and funder, founded the Barksdale Reading Institute.