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State to study separate district for troubled schools

Education appleJACKSON — The State Board of Education is likely to study a new plan to create a separate statewide school district in Mississippi to take over troubled schools and school districts.

The board discussed the study Thursday in a work session where frustration boiled over about the state’s inability to turn around schools and what board members see as a lack of support from the Legislature and Gov. Phil Bryant.

“We have the worst political environment for public education in this state since desegregation days,” said board member Wayne Gann of Corinth, a former superintendent.

The plan to create a task force to study an achievement school district, which the board will vote on Friday, comes a year after the House of Representatives rejected a similar plan over fears of loss of local control and opposition to more charter schools. As envisioned in last year’s legislation, such a district would be able to take over local schools indefinitely. The structure would mirror districts set up in Louisiana and Tennessee to try to improve schools.

Current takeovers under Mississippi’s system of conservatorship are designed to restore schools to local control after a few years. Some board members regard conservatorship as a failure because districts can slip back into bad academic and financial habits after the state relinquishes the reins.

The board could also begin taking over individual schools that score an “F” on the state’s grading system for two years in a row. There are 22 schools in that status right now, but the state can grant them another year of grace if they submit improvement plans. Board members will vote on the improvement plans Friday.

This year, lawmakers are debating bills to mandate changes in academic standards, testing and other items. Board members say they feel the political atmosphere is hostile to their efforts.

Former Clinton Mayor Rosemary Aultman, for example, said she took offense at Bryant’s recent statement that Mississippi’s public education system is an “abysmal failure.” Bryant made that statement in response to House efforts to delay a requirement to flunk poorly reading third-graders for a year.

Gann cited the continuing failure of the state to meet the funding commitment outlined in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program as one of the problems. Lawmakers are on track to spend about $200 million less than the formula requires in the 2016 budget they’re currently writing, although that figure could change as deliberations continue.

“We still have not made the commitment required for quality schools in this state,” Gann said. “We’re not even close to doing that.”

Former Bryant education adviser Johnny Franklin of Bolton restated his position that lack of money isn’t the main problem. He and Board Chairman John Kelly of Gulfport blamed the state’s failures on lack of competent leadership. Kelly said that’s what an achievement district might be able to remedy.

“You’re going to have to find the best educator in the state and put them in charge of this,” Kelly said.



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