JACKSON, Miss. — A new commission will look for ways to improve Mississippi’s second-largest school district instead of putting it under state control, under a plan announced Thursday by Gov. Phil Bryant, Jackson’s mayor and a private foundation.
The move means Bryant is definitively spurning a request by the state Board of Education to sign a declaration allowing the state to take over the Jackson school district because of academic and safety problems.
“The easy thing for me to do would have been to approve the state takeover,” Bryant said in a statement. “This is a better way forward for the 27,000 student in JPS. The opportunity to form this coalition was too good to pass up.”
The Republican Bryant and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, say it’s more important that the district remain under local control and seek improvement ideas from others besides the state Department of Education.
“We will maintain local control,” Lumumba said. “We will still have our Jackson Public School board, and we will look to provide a transformational educational district.”
There will be changes. Lumumba said all the members of the Jackson school board have resigned. Jackson’s chief administrative officer, Robert Blaine, said the mayor plans to present new school board members for the City Council’s approval next week. Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray is expected to remain in place, at least until the study is completed, which could take a year.
Lumumba and Bryant bypassed the state Board of Education. Lumumba said Bryant told him state Superintendent Carey Wright had agreed to the plan, but Wright said Thursday he stands behind the state board’s decision to seek a takeover.
“The governor has made a decision not to declare a state of emergency and to form a coalition to pursue another way to address this crisis,” Wright said in a statement that didn’t directly support the plan. “As of today, the (department) has not been asked to be part of this coalition.”
The 15-member commission will have five members appointed by Lumumba, five by Bryant and five by the foundation. The commissioners, who are supposed to have educational expertise, will hire an outside consultant to study needed improvements for the district. While the commission is seeking a consultant, Lumumba says there will be public forums to seek suggestions from Jackson residents.
Lumumba said the city, Bryant, the school district and Kellogg had signed a formal memorandum of understanding. Blaine refused to provide reporters a copy, telling them to go through the city’s formal public records request process.
Bryant said the state Board of Education’s takeover request remains “active,” meaning he could approve it later if he doesn’t like the district’s direction.
The state board last month asked Bryant to sign an emergency declaration, saying the district is violating 24 of 32 state accrediting standards. Allegations against the district include seniors graduating without showing they met requirements, teachers providing ineffective instruction and schools bring unsafe.
Bryant has in the past signed every emergency declaration the board requested, although he delayed one.
The state board could still take over the Jackson district through another route, by including it in a statewide achievement school district where the state will run low-rated schools. State board chair Rosemary Aultman of Clinton and Vice Chair Jason Dean of Madison both said they hadn’t been briefed, but indicated they were willing to give Bryant’s effort some time.
“This is his plan to make a plan,” Aultman said. “Certainly if that’s what he thinks is best to provide quality education, that’s what’s needed, we’ll give them some time.”
The Board of Education has other options, as well. Wright said the Jackson district must still submit a corrective action plan to the state department for approval. The board could also decide to withdraw accreditation from the district, which could eventually cut the number of allowed interscholastic activities and sports games.
Scott Waller of the Mississippi Economic Council said the state chamber of commerce has agreed to be a resource, but doesn’t have a role determined yet.