School takeover tangled in web of other issues

Published 9:37 pm Monday, September 18, 2017

The potential state takeover of Mississippi’s second-largest school district has highlighted the depth of anger some people feel about how policymakers treat public education and how some legislators have acted toward the capital city.

The state Board of Education last week asked Republican Gov. Phil Bryant to declare that an “extreme emergency” exists in Jackson Public Schools. That is a step toward state takeover of the capital city district with nearly 27,000 students.

“What we are seeing is a recolonization of our city by the state,” Jed Oppenheim, a Jackson School Board member, declared after the state board voted. “This is not about children. This is about money and this is about power.”

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The Legislature has short-funded the state education budget formula almost every year since the formula was put into law in 1997. It’s a pattern that began under Democratic control and has continued under Republicans. Some Jackson Public Schools supporters say the district hasn’t had a fair shot to succeed because of tight budgets.

For the past several years, Republican leaders have pushed expansion of charter schools, which are funded by public money but run by private operators receiving state approval. Only a few operate in Mississippi. While supporters say charters have more flexibility to be innovative, critics say they drain money from existing public schools.

Another issue not directly connected to public education is now figuring prominently in discussions about Jackson Public Schools. The Legislature voted in 2016 to change the makeup of the Jackson airport board. Instead of all board members coming from the city, some would come from suburban counties. The change is tied up in a court fight.

Suburban legislators said the airport is a regional asset and should have a regional board. Opponents said the move was about money, power and race, and that white people who left Jackson or never lived there in the first place were trying to grab something valuable from the majority black city.

The state Department of Education examined operations of the Jackson district for more than a year and outlined about 2,000 pages of findings, including allegations that some high school seniors had graduated without showing they had met requirements, some teachers had provided ineffective instruction and that some schools were unsafe.

Freddrick Murray, who became Jackson’s interim superintendent in November, disputed some findings and said the district was working to correct many of the problems. He asked for more time, but the board voted 5-2 to ask for the governor’s declaration.

Some supporters of the Jackson district, which is 97 percent black, said they see nefarious motives in a state takeover, including a possible expansion of charter schools without community support.

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 state Board of Education said if the Jackson takeover happens, the new interim superintendent would be Margie Pulley, who was put in charge of the Tunica County School District in 2015 after the state took control because of academic problems. The 2,100-student district improved its academic rating from 2015 to 2016.

Alvin Sykes, a Jackson Public Schools graduate who now has three children in the district, said connections to public schools strengthen the community. He said he worries that a state takeover could sever those ties.

“Everybody in this city is here for our kids,” Sykes said. “It’s not about the adults … It’s about the kids.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.