JACKSON The impending state takeover of Jackson Public Schools moved forward today, shocking a packed board room at the Mississippi Department of Education, which is housed in the old, long-segregated Central High School in downtown Jackson. After a long day of hearings and over an hour of deliberation in an executive session, the Commission on School Accreditation voted to declare that JPS is in an “extreme emergency” state that jeopardizes the safety, security and educational interest of the students enrolled in the majority-black district.
Local and state lawmakers, JPS administrators and Board of Trustees members, advocates and Mississippi Department of Education officials crowded into the fourth-floor room Wednesday morning, which filled up by 9:05 a.m. despite the meeting not starting for another hour. The second-floor auditorium soon filled up, too, mainly with concerned Jacksonians, sporting “#OurJPS” stickers, in resistance to a possible state “takeover” of the district.
Both MDE and JPS officials presented their reports, and JPS brought an almost 1,000-page response to the Aug. 31, 2017, MDE investigative audit for board members, and their reasons for why the district should not be declared to be an “emergency” situation, which can set up a state takeover of the school.
Data from MDE and JPS conflicted at several points. For example, the number of graduating seniors and whether or not school facilities had been outfitted with proper metal detectors or emergency equipment varied depended on who was talking.
After MDE and JPS officials made their cases, commissioners asked both Paula Vanderford, chief accountability officer at MDE, and JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray questions for about an hour. Commissioners tried to get to the bottom of the differences between the two reports, and zeroed in on a few specifics.
MDE’s audit found that the three schools monitored during spring 2017 state testing violated accreditation and state policies. Commissioners also questioned why the JPS School Board was still not full. Murray attempted to defer to Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who was at the meeting all day, to explain why he had not yet appointed new members, but MDE attorney Erin Meyer stood up from where she sat and objected, citing the policy that only district employees or board members are allowed to address the commission.
Ultimately, it all boiled down to whether or not JPS had done enough to not be considered in an “extreme emergency.”
James Keith, a prominent education attorney in the Initiative 42 campaign to demand that the Mississippi Legislature follow the law on school funding, represented JPS during its closing argument. Keith questioned why MDE did not take over JPS eight or nine months ago if there were such prominent safety and security issues.
“I’ve never seen a school district react as aggressively as this district has (in order) to correct these issues,” Keith told the commission. “(Murray is) not going to fix these problems overnight. The change has started at the top, and it will take time to work down through the system. … My point from a legal perspective is simply to explain to you that a state of emergency does not exist today—it might have a year ago—but they took care of that. The extreme emergency does not exist today.”
Nine Business Days to Respond
Keith mentioned that JPS hired 14 new principals for the 2017-2018 school year. The district has also implemented a complete restructure of its system and feeder pattern. Keith also stressed the unfairness of JPS only having nine business days (two weeks total) to respond to MDE’s 690-page report before the commission met.
“I think the inherent unfairness of that process should be obvious to everyone here today. Failure to allow time to respond is extremely prejudicial to the district, and it does not allow you the opportunity to see in full detail what the district has done to correct our deficiencies,” he said. “In fact, if you make your decision today without going through all of the documentation we have given you, which that’s about 1,000 pages, you’re going to be making an arbitrary decision if you do that.”
MDE attorney Erin Meyer stressed that JPS had had 18 months to clean up its act, citing the preliminary audit started in April 2016, and the subsequent decision of the commission to put JPS on probation. She argued that JPS is in violation of 24 of the 32 process standards, as well as state and federal law. She said that, ultimately, students’ academic achievement was suffering.
Meyer then proceeded to drop a bomb on the meeting room.
“The MDE has also provided the district’s history of performance: (from) 2012-2015 a D, (in) 2016 an F and the preliminary 2017 results show regardless of cut scores, an F classification, with over 50 percent of the individual schools—”Meyer said.
Keith stood up quickly and cut in.
“We object to her mentioning embargoed data that has never been released …,” he said.
The room rumbled as Meyer continued, “The district has a copy of this; the commission has a copy as well ….”
Commission Chairwoman Heather Westerfield ultimately had to gavel down the room to allow Meyer finish.
Meet the ‘Majority Minority’ Elephant
Meyer also mentioned what she called the “elephant in the room,” by comparing JPS to another “majority minority district” to make the point that JPS is not living up to its potential, to her mind.
“The fourth largest district in the nation, an urban district with 392 schools, 345,000 students, 56 different languages spoken … where over 71 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch—did you know that not one of those schools in that district is an F, and almost 40 percent are As?” she told the commission.
“That’s Miami-Dade County School District, and as you are aware, Mississippi’s accountability model is modeled off of theirs. This shows what’s possible with effective leadership, appropriate instruction and positive school climate, this shows it’s possible for JPS to achieve more.”
Miami-Dade County School District has 318,000 more students than JPS as well as vastly different demographics. Miami-Dade County Schools are 70 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black and 7 percent white. JPS is 96 percent black and less than 5 percent of any other demographic.
The MDE lawyer also alluded to what could end up being the fate of JPS.
“There was a legislative change in 2017, and the model shifts to a focus on academic achievement, it’s not about compliance with law and policy, it’s about a district of transformation with a focus on instruction,” she said. “Interim superintendents will be put in place under law—they will be instructional leaders, and the district will have to be successful for five years before it’s turned back over. Let me be clear, this is not MDE taking over a district, this is about transforming a district.”
The commission deliberated its decision behind closed doors and outside public view for over an hour in executive session. Around 4:15 p.m., the commissioners returned and made a motion to read a printed-out resolution declaring JPS to be in an “emergency” situation. They approved the resolution in a 10-1 vote with Ann Jones, the only commissioner from Jackson, voting against it. Community leaders voiced their displeasure outside the building afterward.
Mayor Lumumba told reporters that today is a sad day for the state of Mississippi.
“What we experienced over the last several hours appears to have been a perfunctory exercise, one that every single commissioner that stepped in that room had already reached a decision, (or) they were deaf to the arguments presented today,” he said. “There is no possible way that you could have heard the arguments and the inconsistencies articulated today and have reached a near unanimous decision.”
Tomorrow the State Board of Education will have to vote to approve the Commission’s recommendation to declare an “emergency” in JPS. Then that decision heads to the governor’s desk, if approved. At that point, Gov. Phil Bryant would decide how to proceed.
Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter for updates from the meeting tomorrow @arielle_amara.