Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks during the Stennis Capitol Press Forum at Capital Towers in Jackson Monday, January 14, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Gulfport School District is awaiting approval for additional flexibility next year to be able to reduce achievement gaps, increase student learning and other goals because the board overseeing public education in the state has too many vacancies to take a vote.

And in one Delta county, funding for an early learning program for preschool children hangs in the balance for the same reason.

The nine-member State Board of Education is currently operating with only five members, and soon to be four after a longtime member rolls off next month. The low numbers means any time one board member must recuse him or herself from a vote, the board can’t proceed.

Two — and soon to be three — of the vacancies on the education board are Gov. Tate Reeves’ responsibility to fill, while Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn each have one seat to fill. Hosemann and Gunn have said they are actively meeting with candidates to determine who to appoint.

But Reeves remains silent about when he’ll make his three appointments, ignoring questions from Mississippi Today over the course of several weeks. Meanwhile, the board cannot take critical votes.

In April, Gulfport School District was on the list along with several other districts to be approved as a “District of Innovation,” a special status granted by the state to districts that allows them additional flexibility to expand curriculum choices, develop programs that increase students’ college and career-readiness and make special efforts aimed at low-performing students to decrease learning disparities.

Glen East, the district’s superintendent, is also a member of the State Board of Education and had to recuse himself from the vote, leaving the board with four members, or one member shy of a quorum, and unable to vote on the matter.

“We’re still currently working on the District of Innovation for this school year through the end of June, so we’ll see what happens,” said East, whose district has used the status to create a Middle College program where students can achieve a high school diploma at the same time as an associate’s degree. 

He said he’s hopeful an appointment will be made in the next 60 days so the district’s status will be able to be approved once again. 

“We’re working hard as a board of five right now … We’re all waiting for the next appointments to come through to help make the process more efficient,” he said. 

The State Board of Education must also soon approve additional grant funding for the Tallahatchie Early Learning Alliance, along with other collaboratives across the state. But because of Board of Education member Angela Bass’ work with the Mississippi Early Learning Alliance, she must recuse herself from the vote — meaning the board is, once again, unable to move forward in securing an additional nearly $40,000 in funding for Tallahatchie.

Early learning collaboratives are partnerships among school districts, Head Start agencies, childcare centers and nonprofit groups. There are currently 18 collaboratives serving more than 3,000 children across the state. They were recently recognized by a national group as having the highest quality standards, but access to them remains very low, with only 8% of the state’s 4-year-olds attending one.

One of the Board of Education seats became vacant after the former board chair Jason Dean resigned in February. Dean’s seat is appointed by Hosemann, the lieutenant governor. The others have been vacant for at least several months, and one nearly a year.

Board of Education Chairwoman Rosemary Aultman said she has a meeting with Gunn, the House speaker, on Thursday to discuss his appointment and hopes to have more news then. A spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said his office is in the process of interviewing candidates.

Reeves’ office ignored multiple questions about his unfilled appointments but did say Wednesday appointments would be made before the board’s meeting next week.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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.