- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The state Board of Education is giving Jackson schools a chance to fix accreditation problems, but Mississippi’s second-largest school district may have only a short window to avoid a state takeover.

The board voted 4-1 Thursday to approve a corrective action plan submitted by the 27,000-student district after it was placed on probation in August. The board rejected an earlier version of the plan in November, demanding more specifics.

Mississippi Department of Education accrediting chief Paula Vanderford told the board that state employees still find alarming conditions at schools, saying a recent visit to a district high school found unstaffed classrooms, students milling around in halls and students looking at cellphones instead of taking part in classes. She said buses were arriving late and students weren’t searched when they set off metal detectors upon entering.

Vanderford underlined that the department could recommend a state takeover even before deadlines to complete improvements.

“We just have to warn that there could potentially be additional sanctions if immediate actions to address these concerns are not taken,” Vanderford told the board Thursday

Johnny Franklin of Bolton, who voted to reject the plan, was among board members critical of the district.

“This an abject failure on behalf of the adult population in that district who get paid good money every day that’s killing kids, big time,” he said.

Any takeover would have to be approved by Gov. Phil Bryant. Spokesman Clay Chandler said Bryant would “thoroughly review” any such request.

State Superintendent Carey Wright said she spoke to district officials in recent days and will address a Jackson school board meeting Tuesday.

“Everybody in that district has to understand the severity of what we have seen and what we have witnessed,” Wright said.

She also expressed concern that although the district now has written a plan, it might be unable to implement it.

The state Department of Education almost took over Jackson schools in 2012 because of special education violations but backed away. Wright said she wouldn’t hesitate if that’s what’s needed.

Interim Jackson Superintendent Freddrick Murray said he’s trying to instill the sense of urgency sought by state officials. Murray took over after local board members forced out Cedrick Gray over concerns about the probationary status and the district’s F rating under the state’s grading system.

“The board has become a lot more attuned to and involved in our system,” school board President Beneta Burt said.

Murray said district officials have already worked to alleviate some concerns, such as a lack of fire extinguishers, and have examined and corrected 13,000 student records over findings that seniors were being allowed to graduate without the district documenting that they had met all requirements.

Murray said the scrutiny is a challenge: “It’s a house under repair, and we’re being inspected at the same time.”

Vanderford, though, said state employees visiting schools fear the district is conducting “business as usual.” She said improvements in discipline, order and safety must be apparent when the second semester begins in January, and said state officials will make unannounced spot visits.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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