- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:


Sept. 17

The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson on why there was no conspiracy for the state to takeover Jackson schools:

There are legitimate arguments to be made against the state taking over Jackson Public Schools, the most obvious being that state takeovers have, at best, a marginal record of success.

One argument that is completely illegitimate, however, is that this is some grand conspiracy by the state.

Granted, state officials, particularly in the Legislature, have raised suspicions with their oversight approach to the one-cent sales tax commission and the Capitol Complex Improvement District. However, one could also argue that years of indecision by city leaders led to the infrastructure woes these two plans were created to address, so some state oversight is not an unrealistic request.

The most onerous and obvious power grab was the Legislature changing the law dictating how airports are governed. This was clearly a ploy by certain state leaders to gain control of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, which - despite erroneous statements by some lawmakers - has been operating in the black and has no significant management issues. The city of Jackson wholly paid for the development of the airport, and neither the state nor surrounding counties have any legitimate claim to it. Nevertheless, lawmakers took what they wanted. Hopefully the Federal Aviation Administration eventually will rule that the state acted improperly. Until that time, the city continues to have control of the airport, and the JMAA board continues to run a solid operation.

That situation, however, is much different than what has happened with JPS. In fact, all indications - both public and private - have been that the Mississippi Department of Education and other state leaders were loath to take over the district. Such an undertaking will be exhaustive and cost millions of additional state dollars.

More importantly, the facts simply do not support a conspiracy.

The state could have made a takeover push last year when a limited audit of 22 of the district’s 58 schools found “severe deficiencies related to school safety and instructional practices.” Among those findings were teachers without proper licenses, out-of-date school board policies, seniors allowed to graduate who did not meet graduation requirements and improper or inadequate classroom instruction.

Instead of seeking a takeover at that point, the Commission on School Accreditation, in addition to downgrading the district’s accreditation to probationary status, recommended a full audit of all 58 schools. This was the correct course of action for two reasons. First, a full audit would provide a complete look at the state of the district. Second, it gave JPS leaders time to start addressing the deficiencies already discovered.

That was last August. From Sept. 6, 2016, until July 31, MDE conducted a full audit of JPS, the results of which were released Aug. 31. But the idea that JPS had only from then until this week to answer MDE’s findings and address any issues is false.

MDE and JPS were in open communication about discovered violations throughout the entire process. State Superintendent Carey Wright even made the rather unusual decision to visit the JPS school board during a December meeting. She addressed the board and district leaders about the seriousness of the situation facing JPS.

This came right after the state accepted a correction plan offered by JPS aimed at fixing the deficiencies from the summer. During her visit, however, Wright said many of the same issues presented to JPS leaders the previous August were discovered in a December visit that had taken place days before.

In the eight months since Wright’s visit to the JPS school board, district and MDE officials have remained in constant contact. In fact, JPS multiple times called MDE auditors back to the district to review solved issues only for auditors to find those issues were not fixed.

Then Thursday - when the state board of education named Margie Pulley as JPS interim superintendent - district supporters, city leaders and public school activists quickly declared that the action proved a conspiracy was in place. Pulley’s name had been rumored for weeks, some on social media already ginning the conspiracy rumor mill by saying she was preparing to move to Jackson.

The truth, however, is far less nefarious. State officials have openly acknowledged that taking over JPS would be a monumental task. However, if it came to that, MDE would have been irresponsible had they not been prepared ahead of time. They wisely started talking to Pulley and at least one other current public school superintendent about the position. MDE officials also have started preliminary budget estimates in the event a takeover came to fruition. That’s just smart planning.

Think of the alternative. If MDE did not have Pulley in place, JPS would essentially be rudderless for several weeks in the event that Gov. Phil Bryant declares the state of emergency required for a takeover, as he is expected to do. Such lack of planning would have been honest grounds for criticism.

No, the state model of assuming control of local school districts is not perfect, but the JPS school board and district leadership have had ample opportunity to make meaningful progress yet have failed to do so. Yes, some progress in some areas has been made, but it’s not enough progress in enough areas. And in some areas, such as special education, JPS actually has lost ground.

So whatever criticisms one may have over the way this was handled, two things should be obvious to any honest observer.

First, JPS has serious issues that are detrimental to the education of the approximately 27,000 students it serves.

And second, the idea of this being part of a conspiracy is ludicrous. Such an argument seems more about stirring public outcry than seeking better schools for our children.

Online: https://www.clarionledger.com/


Sept. 15

The Sun Herald of Biloxi on how protests led to a state bill that resulted in overhaul of a hospital system’s Board of Trustees:

Yes, sometimes government works.

Not that long ago, the Singing River Health System, to put it mildly, was a mess. Its pension system was in doubt. Employees and retirees were on edge. Lawsuits were filed. Executives bolted.

And the Board of Trustees appointed by the Jackson County Board of Supervisors was less than forthcoming, taking full advantage of an exemption from open meetings laws.

But the employees stuck together, protested loudly, and in the end, got the attention of the Legislature, and state Sen. Brice Wiggins in particular. It wasn’t easy, but a bill survived Jackson that would end most of the secrecy and would lead to an overhaul of the Board of Trustees.

Some cause for heartburn remains at SRHS. The pension system’s problems are yet to be resolved, for example.

But the new board gives us hope. It is listening, at least.

Case in point: Tuesday, the board opened its meeting to any patient or retiree who wanted to talk about the health care system.

There was a lot to talk about - the firing of neurologist Dr. Terry Millette, the exit of Chief Executive Office Kevin Holland and the pension system.

And trustees James Epting, Randall Doyle, Auwilda Polk, Jeffery Belk, Don Baron and Steven Ates listened.

And lo and behold, they learned something.

“I think we heard some things we probably haven’t heard before,” Epting said. “I took a lot of notes to look into problems that were brought out.”

We have said this many times.

Listening, even to the cranks, never hurts. And more often than not, it helps.

We won’t know for some time whether the interaction with the people will solve any of the hospital’s problems. We hope it does. And we hope this signals the beginning of a new era of openness, not just at SRHS, but among all the agencies and boards that are duty-bound to serve the people.

But for now, join us in celebrating and thanking the SRHS Board of Trustees.

Online: https://www.sunherald.com/


Sept. 14

Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal on absenteeism in schools:

One of the most significant challenges educators throughout Mississippi face every day is, in reality, something that’s so fundamental to ensuring students are receiving a good education - being at school.

It should come as no surprise that chronic absenteeism has a direct correlation to student achievement. The reason behind that is quite simple - students can’t learn if they aren’t at school. We don’t need studies and research to tell us that if a student isn’t in the classroom, grasping the concepts being taught will be more difficult.

And as simple as that might sound at the end of the day, chronic absenteeism is a serious issue that impacts every school and district throughout our state.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education, 88 of 902 Mississippi schools report that 30 percent of students or more are chronically absent.

The percentage of Mississippi schools with an extreme chronic absence rate mirrors the national rate of 11 percent, as reported by the Daily Journal’s Emma Crawford Kent. An additional 132 Mississippi schools report 20-29 percent of students are chronically absent.

Chronic absence is defined as missing 15 percent or more of the academic year (180 days) for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences.

Not only can student absences hinder academic growth, but absences can also cost school districts thousands of dollars in state funding each year.

Mississippi’s public education funding mechanism - known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) - funds per-pupil, which is based on a district’s Average Daily Attendance. The number of students attending school in the district during the months of October and November are averaged together to get the ADA figure.

In an effort to make the issue even more top of mind to all educators, September has been named “Attendance Awareness Month” in public schools, although any district administrator will tell you that attendance is something they focus on every day of the school year.

At the Tupelo Public School District, leaders say promoting good attendance has become a district-wide effort. Even departments that aren’t directly involved with instruction, like maintenance, are getting involved. As the school year moves into the flu season, maintenance officials are taking extra care to disinfect school facilities in hopes of preventing absences because of the flu.

Most TPSD schools also have attendance incentives for students in place, designed to reward those who have few or no absences.

Lee County School District leaders are involved in a nationwide campaign working to reduce chronic absenteeism and improve student achievement.

The campaign sends promotional materials and guides to schools for them to use in their efforts to encourage better attendance. Schools throughout Lee County are promoting better attendance through social media channels, as well as having student rewards in place for attendance.

Ultimately, ensuring students are at school each and every day during the school year is a vital initiative that we as a community can help impact.

Online: https://www.djournal.com/

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