Education board backs takeover of Mississippi district
By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
Sep. 15, 2017
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Board of Education is moving closer to taking over the state's second-largest school district because of academic and accountability problems, but some parents are vowing a legal fight.
The eight board members heard arguments Thursday for and against a state takeover of Jackson Public Schools . They went into a two-hour closed session and voted 5-2 to recommend that Republican Gov. Phil Bryant declare that an "extreme emergency" exists in the district with about 27,000 students. The governor's declaration is a necessary step in the takeover process.
The state has taken control of 19 school districts because of academic or financial problems in the past 20 years, but never one as large as Jackson.
The School Accreditation Commission recommended that the board declare an "extreme emergency" in the Jackson district. Allegations against the district include seniors graduating without showing they met requirements, teachers providing ineffective instruction and schools being unsafe.
Bryant spokesman Knox Graham said in a written statement that the governor will carefully consider the state board's recommendation but does not have a timetable for making a decision.
Dorsey Carson, an attorney with a daughter in a Jackson elementary school, said he will file a lawsuit to try to block a state takeover.
"This takes away the rights of the community to a voice in this," Carson said Thursday. "We know it's a hatchet job."
The state board has already chosen a new interim superintendent for Jackson — longtime administrator Margie Pulley, who was appointed to lead northern Mississippi's Tunica County School District after it was taken over by the state because of academic problems.
Freddrick Murray, who has been interim superintendent in Jackson since November, argued that the district has made improvements and should get more time to continue solving problems. Murray said much of the information in the commission's report was based on conditions in the district six to 12 months ago.
"We are a much different district now than we were at that time," Murray said.
Paula Vanderford, chief accountability officer for the Department of Education, said Jackson Public Schools has had 18 months to correct problems and many of the problems are still unresolved.
"We do not feel that at any point the district demonstrated the sense of urgency needed to resolve the critical issues that we had put before them," Vanderford said.
After the state board voted to move toward a takeover, current Jackson school board member Jed Oppenheim said little consideration is being given to the wishes of parents in the Jackson district, where enrollment is 97 percent black. He said a similar pattern has existed for years in Mississippi and other states with quick takeover of districts that educate "black and brown children." Pointing to the Mississippi flag that still includes the Confederate battle emblem, Oppenheim said the white power structure of the state has long planned to take over Jackson Public Schools.
"Now we're at this point to create a sense of chaos in our district," Oppenheim said. "We will not deny that there are issues that we are dealing with every single day to try to improve the education for our children in Jackson Public Schools. There's no joke that we have serious issues that we have been addressing."
Rosemary Aultman, the state Board of Education chairwoman, responded later: "The board and the state are critically concerned about black children, and ... that's exactly why we have done this."
Aultman abstained from voting Thursday, which she said she typically does as chairwoman. Johnny Franklin of Bolton and Charles McClelland of Jackson voted against moving toward a state takeover.
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