‘There is no fight’ – State Board of Ed says there’s no battle over JPS

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi State Board of Education met Nov. 9.

In a meeting filled with talk of federal grants and a forensic audit, the State Board of Education also took time to clear the air about its stance concerning the Jackson Public School District.

A day after the Achievement School District task force made a recommendation that JPS be added to the state-run district, state Board of Education chair Rosemary Aultman took a point of privilege during the Education Board’s regular monthly meeting to address the situation.

“Several media reports and editorials have portrayed the situation as a battle between the governor, the mayor, JPS and MDE,” Aultman said. “Let me clear: there is no conflict, there is no fight.”

In September, both the state Board of Education and the Commission on School Accreditation determined an extreme emergency situation existed in the district and recommended it be taken over by the state.

“The state of JPS had reached the point that the board could no longer ignore the fact that the district was not successful and had not been for several years,” Aultman said.

Instead of declaring a state of emergency, Gov. Phil Bryant announced a partnership in October between his office, the City of Jackson and W.K. Kellogg Foundation to avoid state takeover.

On Wednesday, the Achievement School District made their recommendation, which the state board will vote on at its Dec. 14 meeting.

“Every person with a stake in JPS shares the same goal: we all want a high quality school system that helps the 27,000 students be successful,” Aultman said. “If the governor’s and mayor’s plan results in quality schools throughout JPS everybody benefits.”

Aultman said the board decided in executive session to rescind Margie Pulley’s contract to serve as interim superintendent of Jackson Public Schools since the governor did not declare a state of emergency. She will remain at Tunica County School District, where she is currently interim superintendent.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Ryan Merryman and Jody Kantz of the CliftonLarsenAllen firm present the results of their organization’s forensic audit to the board.

The board also listened to a presentation from Minnesota-based accounting firm  CliftonLarsonAllen regarding the state Department of Education’s misuse of some federal funds last year. Revelation of the improper handling of the funds was widely reported and led to the firing of three state Education Department employees.

Forensic accountant Ryan Merryman and manager of the firm’s forensic team Jody Kantz told the board the department misappropriated more than $11.6 million of fiscal year 2016 Title I funds for a different program, 21st Century Community Learning Center Program.  Title I provides federal financial assistance for specific education needs, whereas 21st Century funds help create community learning centers for high poverty, low-performing schools.

Three department employees were fired for the error and only 28 school districts and organizations received federal funding for after-school programs for low-income students last school year, compared to more than 100 the previous year.

Of the misspent funds, $149,046 was returned by 21st Century grant recipients who were not supposed to receive Title I funding, and more than $3.9 million was reimbursed to the Title I program in Sept. 2016, Merryman said. The remaining $7.5 million was returned in September 2017.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

State Superintendent Carey Wright

“As promised, the MDE instituted new procedures for the grant application and awarding process to prevent the errors that occurred in 2016. We understand the importance of the community learning centers, and we believe the new process strengthens accountability for the grant program,” state superintendent of education Carey Wright said in a statement.

On Thursday, the board approved 14.1 million in 21st Century grants to disperse over a three-year period beginning in the 2018-19 school year. Of that funding, 23 existing centers will continue to receive grant funds and 15 new sites will receive funding.

The board also approved a roughly $983,000 grant to help homeless students across the state. The McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth grants allow local education agencies provide transportation, medical, and educational services for students who do not have a permanent home address.