April 12, 2019 10:44:45 AM
JACKSON -- Two school districts in Mississippi's Delta region will be the first to be folded into a new statewide district aimed at improving academic performance.
Mississippi's state Board of Education voted Thursday to take control of the Humphreys County and Yazoo City school districts. The board hired Jermall Wright, currently the chief academic and accountability officer for the Birmingham, Alabama, school district to be the achievement district's first superintendent.
Officials in the two districts did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment.
In choosing to take over those two districts, the board declined to take over other districts that had been listed as options, including Amite County, Jefferson County and Clarksdale.
Lawmakers created the achievement school district in 2016, expressing dissatisfaction with the state's previous efforts to turn around academically struggling schools. It can take over school districts rated F by the state for two straight years, or any district rated F for two of three years. The board previously decided only to take over districts with half or more F-rated schools or half or more students attending F-rated schools. All five districts considered met all those criteria.
The districts will remain under state control until the state Board of Education decides to return them to the control of a local board and superintendent. Still, they must stay under achievement district supervision at least until the district scores a C rating or better for five years.
Under the arrangement, local school boards will be dissolved and current superintendents will lose their jobs by June 1. Wright, who will make $175,000 a year, will report directly to the state Board of Education. He was hired to run statewide turnaround efforts in Alabama in 2017, but shifted to the Birmingham job after the state superintendent who hired him was fired. Board Chair Jason Dean said Jermall Wright would report directly to the state Board of Education and not to state Superintendent Carey Wright. The two are not related.
Mississippi's achievement district was originally supposed to start operation in August 2018, but efforts stalled after the board couldn't find a superintendent it wanted to hire. At that time, the state was considering taking over the Humphreys and Noxubee County school systems. The state later took over Noxubee County under its traditional process, where the governor declares a state of emergency, after the district got into financial trouble. Yazoo City averted a takeover under the traditional process in 2013 by persuading the state Board of Education it had a plan for improvement.
Achievement school districts or similar efforts in other states have sparked protests over loss of local control, and some states have dialed back takeovers after finding it hard to improve academics. Several state board members in Mississippi continued Thursday to oppose creating a similar district here.
"I have not found any state yet that has been real successful with this," said board member Charles McClelland of Jackson.
But other board members said they had previously agreed to move forward and said the state has to try to do something to improve its poorest-performing schools. Yazoo City was the second-worst and Humphreys County was the fourth-worst among traditional public school districts on the state's accreditation system last year.
"We have not had any real opportunity to experience whether this is going to work for us or not," said board member John Kelly of Gulfport. "I just believe we have to try something different."
Kelly expressed hope that a long period of state control would change the culture of the districts. The state has historically taken over a district because it's financially broke, riven by political conflict, or violating state accrediting standards, often handing control back over to locals after a few years. State Superintendent Carey Wright has worked to push academic improvement to the forefront of the traditional takeover process.
One key question that state officials couldn't answer Thursday is whether teachers in Humphreys County and Yazoo City have signed contracts for the upcoming school year. If not, teachers could seek jobs elsewhere, posing obstacles for Jermall Wright's first year.
"I hope teachers would let him come and give him a chance before they make that decision," Carey Wright said.
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