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No winners in Jackson Public Schools takeover by state education department

Steve Wilson

The looming takeover of the Jackson Public Schools District is a classic example of a no-win scenario.

The state Board of Education voted Thursday to recommend to Gov. Phil Bryant that a state of emergency existed in the JPS, which is a danger to the safety and learning of the district's 27,000 students.

After the vote, Jackson leaders assailed the move and legal action has been threatened. It never feels good to have your failings laid bare for all to see in what was a damning audit report finished after an 18-month investigation.

There were plenty of issues:

  • Mississippi Department of Education inspectors found non-working metal detectors, but worse, found working metal detectors being ignored by teachers and school administrators. Auditors found unlocked doors at schools and a lack of emergency action plans. A principal even tried to impede auditors at his school from observing statewide testing.

  • There were missing records, unsecured statewide tests, a lack of discipline and a consistent lack of instruction for students observed countless times in the report.

  • The ultimate embodiment of the issues with the district was the observation by MDE officials of a teacher wearing a sweatshirt that said "Newsflash: I don't care."

The JPS answer to these serious charges was "we're getting things fixed the best we can" and "it's not fair that we're having to fix discrepancies from the first audit (April 2016) while we're in the midst of a more comprehensive audit (started in September 2016)."

JPS officials didn't exactly help their case of competence Wednesday when MDE counsel informed the state Commission on Accreditation that JPS binders of evidence of corrective actions given to each commission member contained possible breaches of student information in violation of federal law.

A lot of voices are angry that the JPS is "underfunded." Maybe by the Mississippi Adequate Education Program's measure it is, but the facts are that revenue from the state to JPS have increased from $192 million in 2013 to $204 million in 2016. The district spends $9,300 per pupil and parents are receiving an F-rated education. In the state's largest school district, DeSoto County, students are receiving an A-rated education while only costing $7,534.51 per pupil to educate. The lesson isn't how much you spend, but where.

Maybe the anger of the people should be redirected to those in the district leadership who failed their children for years before the first audit. It isn't a new development that the JPS students are struggling academically or that safety issues have become a major concern.

While the interim superintendent, Freddrick Murray, made serious strides in seven months to correct the many discrepancies, he's digging out from a deep hole left by his predecessor, Cedrick Gray, and the board that hired him. The JPS Board gave Gray the job as superintendent in 2012 even though he left a poor audit at his previous job in Tennessee. Under Gray's leadership, the JPS slid into probation and an F-rating and he resigned last year.

Add to that the chaos from the seven-member board now down to four members — just enough for a quorum to conduct business — and there is little wonder why the district is in a state of emergency.

Just looking at data from the Mississippi Department of Education reveals parents are "voting with their feet" and leaving the district. Since 2005, JPS enrollment has fallen 16.9 percent as surrounding systems such as Clinton and Madison County grow at the expense of JPS.

The state Board of Education wants to have successful school districts run by leaders from that community. They're not in the business of running wayward school districts and in this case, they had step into the situation since there was no other choice.

Steve Wilson covers state and local government for the Mississippi Independent News Service. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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