Jackson Public Schools administrative building Credit: Jackson Public Schools

The most challenging issues the Jackson Public School District faces are retaining and hiring licensed teachers and bringing the district’s old buildings up to the standards required by the state, administrators told the board Tuesday.

The board met to discuss the district’s corrective action plan, or CAP, that it must submit to the Mississippi Department of Education by Jan. 16 following a recent audit that found the district in violation of 75 percent of the state’s accreditation standards for public schools.

The district currently has 299 teacher vacancies, Executive Director of School Improvement William Merritt said at the meeting. Some of those positions are being filled by substitute teachers with no teaching credentials, or “limited service” teachers, but they still are counted as vacancies, he said.

Board President Jeanne Hairston asked Merritt and Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray what the district is doing differently to recruit teachers. Their answer included job fairs every other month, surveys and focus groups of teachers to get feedback on what things might improve retention, working with non-credentialed teachers who are close to passing the Praxis to help them get licensed, and possibly increasing teacher pay in the district.

Murray noted a recent job fair resulted in four new teacher hires for the district.

Merritt also mentioned facilities as a difficult area to correct deficiencies since many of the district’s buildings are old and need expensive repairs. In its investigative audit, the state Education Department noted a failure to provide clean and sanitary facilities in a safe environment in 31 elementary schools, seven middle schools and six high schools.

Other areas Merritt presented as challenging to the district are federal programs, special education, and implementation of instructional management systems. Merritt said many of the deficiencies in special education and implementation of the instructional management system are related to the issue with a shortage of licensed staff, making those areas hard to correct until the district is brought up to speed with its staff.

The standards the district feels confident it will clear are those related to finance, dropout prevention, school calendar, professional development, transportation and safety, Merritt said.

After the discussion, the board decided to delay approval of the corrective action plan it must submit to the Mississippi Department of Education until Jan. 9.

Because the plan was still technically in draft form, several board members expressed concern about not seeing the final version before it is submitted to the Mississippi Department of Education on or before Jan. 16. Although Murray and Merritt explained only minor edits would be made between now and that time, the board agreed it would remove the item from the full board agenda Tuesday night and revisit it next month.

The district’s plan will be presented to the State Board of Education on Feb. 15, when the Commission on School Accreditation will make a recommendation to either deny or approve the plan.

State approval of the plan would mark another chapter in the auditing process of Jackson Public School District which began almost two years ago.

In April 2016, the state conducted a limited audit on 22 schools and found them in violation of 22 of 32 accreditation standards. In August 2016 the district was downgraded to probation status and the Commission on School Accreditation also voted to approve the full audit of all 58 JPS schools.

The full audit concluded in August 2017 and found issues with reporting data correctly, certified teachers, and students meeting graduation requirements, among other problems.

If the corrective action plan is approved, the district can begin immediately requesting the state Department of Education to visit schools and clear violations. The district must be 100 percent compliant in all standards by July 31, interim superintendent Freddrick Murray said.

Those violations ultimately led to the state Board of Education and Commission on School Accreditation recommendations for a state takeover, although Gov. Phil Bryant denied the request and announced a new partnership between his office, the City of Jackson, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation instead.

Jackson Public Schools was also eligible for placement in the state-run Achievement School District, but the state board decided against it in the wake of the governor’s announcement.

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.

Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.