‘We’re not afraid’ — JPS board members embrace challenge

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Jackson Public Schools

Jackson Public Schools administrative building

Turning around the Jackson Public School District which last fall was on the brink of a state takeover  will require a lot of work, but district leaders say they have the support in place to make it happen.

In an interview with reporters Thursday, board president Jeanne Hairston said the district has been in an emergency situation, but “we’re not afraid of that.”

“Emergencies happen, but the adults in the room, we’re all confident and competent and we can move forward and be a model,” Hairston said.

In August 2017, the State Department of Education released the results of an 18-month investigative audit which found the district in violation of 75 percent of state accreditation violations. A month later, both the Commission on School Accreditation and State Board of Education each declared an extreme emergency situation existed in the district that warranted state takeover. In October, the district earned its second consecutive “F” accountability rating, which also left it eligible to join the state-run Achievement School District.

For weeks, the question loomed of whether the state’s second largest school district would be placed under state control, but in Oct. Gov. Phil Bryant announced “a better way forward for the 27,000 students in JPS.” Instead, he unveiled a partnership between his office, the city of Jackson, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation known as the Better Together Commission.

The previous school board resigned in October as part of the governor’s announcement. The current six-member board convened for the first time in November, and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba still has one more spot to fill before the board is fully staffed.

“When we accepted this job, we knew it wasn’t going to be an overnight fix,” Hairston said.

Since then the group has hit the ground running, taking time during board meetings to heavily scrutinize contracts and services. Although it may seem like members are nitpicking these vendors, she said, the board just wants to make sure the services the district pays for translate into results.

While board members have charged ahead with their duties since taking office, there have been hiccups. The corrective action plan (CAP) which the district must submit in response to the investigative audit was not approved earlier this month. State Department of Education officials said the plan needs more work before it can be approved at the next meeting in March.

The board approved those revisions on Thursday, and Hairston said she is confident the district will meet all the accreditation standards.

Board vice president Ed Sivak said the district is “obviously in a state of transition,” but with the help of the commission and other partners there is a lot of opportunity for success.

Sivak said members are wary of changing the district’s organization chart — the previous school board reorganized feeder patterns into four regions last May — until a new superintendent is in place.

“We want to be careful of making lots of changes prior to that person getting in place so that they can work with the board to build a structure where our students can succeed,” said Sivak, who is also a member of the Better Together Commission.

Sivak referred repeatedly to the “culture of collaboration” the board is trying to create, with help from the Better Together Commission, state Department of Education, and other groups invested in the district.

The commission recently announced the hiring of California-based consultant Insight Education Group to conduct a study of the district and present it in November.

The board intends to have a new, permanent superintendent in place by July 1, and earlier this month members narrowed down their options to two potential superintendent search firms. The board will interview both of those candidates on March 1, and the Better Together Commission has its next meeting scheduled for that date as well.