Members of Jackson Public Schools board discuss district’s corrective action plan at Tuesday’s meeting.

The Jackson Public School District could begin clearing accreditation violations as soon as February if the state approves its plan for correcting them.

The newly assembled Board of Trustees met Tuesday for the first time to handle district business and discuss the district’s corrective action plan.

One of the first items on the agenda was was the selection of board leadership. Jeanne Hairston was appointed board president, Ed Sivak vice president and Barbara Hilliard secretary.

All six members were appointed by Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and one spot remains before the board is fully staffed. The previous school board resigned as part of a partnership between the City of Jackson, Gov. Phil Bryant’s office, and Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The board officially approved the memorandum of understanding for the partnership during the meeting Tuesday. Board members will work with the Better Together Commission to avoid state takeover and improve the state’s second-largest school district.

In August, the Mississippi Department of Education concluded an 18-month investigative audit that found the district in violation of 75 percent of state accreditation standards. The audit found problems involving reporting data accurately to the Department of Education, district record keeping, teachers working outside their areas of endorsement, unlicensed teaching staff and an inadequate amount of school support services available to students.

Bryant ultimately declined to issue a state of emergency which would have allowed the state to take over JPS, but the district is still required to respond to the audit findings with a detailed plan that outlines how to address the issues it highlighted.

Executive director of school improvement William Merritt told the board a new corrective action plan, or CAP, should be presented for approval during the second JPS board meeting in December. That plan is due to the Mississippi Department of Education by Jan. 16, 2018, and it will be presented to the State Board of Education for approval on Feb. 15, 2018, Merritt said.

If the plan is approved, the state can immediately begin clearing violations listed in the audit if the Department of Education officials find the district has corrected them.

After more than 30 minutes of discussion, the board approved a contract amendment with Bailey Education Group, a consulting firm the district hired earlier this year to help navigate the audit process. The group will be paid $29,000 for an additional 20 days of work surrounding the corrective action plan between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28, officials said.

The previous school board initially approved a $95,900 contract with the Bailey Group in April and extended that contract to the end of August at no additional cost when it ended in July. In September, the old school board approved a new, $145,000 contract with the group for Sept. 20 through Nov. 31.

Board member Letitia Simmons-Johnson expressed concern about continuing to pay a consultant without any results to show for it, since the audit process is not yet concluded and there is still a risk that JPS could be taken over.

“I’m really, really uncomfortable continuing to pay these consultants this amount of money without knowing that we’re on the right track,” Simmons-Johnson said.

Merritt and Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray responded in support of the group, whose employees have experience working for the Mississippi Department of Education and have worked with other districts on their own corrective action plans.

The district needs to be certain the corrective action plan is completed correctly so the state will approve it, Murray said.

“We cannot guess,” Murray said. “We need to make sure and their expertise is what brought them to the table and that’s why we’re working with them. We’re not beholden to any group, it’s just that the support that they’re providing happens to be valuable.”

Murray said the most important thing for the district was ensuring there are effective practices in place.

“That’s what standards are,” he said. “The standards that are outlined guide districts in being successful. It’s not about the CAP, it’s about doing what’s right for the children and all of those things are just a part of it.”

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 5.

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. Skinner most recently served as deputy managing editor before assuming the role of managing editor. Kayleigh has a bachelor’s in journalism from the School of Journalism and New Media from the University of Mississippi. 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.