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Jackson schools could lose accreditation

JACKSON (AP) — Jackson’s public schools could lose state accreditation Thursday, after district board members rejected a deal that would have given the system longer to comply with rules regarding special education.

The pact would have given Jackson until June 2013 to resolve special education problems that have lingered for years. But it required the local system to give up substantial control over special education to the state, and board members rejected it 4-3 Monday, with some expressing concerns about losing local rule. Jackson Public Schools have a Tuesday deadline to sign the deal.

Patrice Guilfoyle, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education, said the state isn’t talking about further plans until after Jackson actually loses accreditation. But she did indicate the state has an action plan.

The state recently enhanced penalties for districts losing accreditation, but the Jackson case began earlier. Under the old rules, district teams can compete in regular-season games but will be barred from athletic playoffs. Students will also be barred from state meets in activities including band, chorus and debate.

Under a state law passed this year, parents can seek to transfer students to other districts, but the districts receiving the districts get to decide.

Students will still earn state-recognized diplomas, meaning colleges will accept graduates. Students who transfer to other districts must be accepted in good standing and won’t be routinely tested for placement.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Disability Law Center and Disability Rights Mississippi filed an administrative complaint with the state claiming the district was overly punitive toward special education students, suspending them or sending them to the district’s alternative school. In a parallel action, the groups sued the district over the practice of handcuffing students at the alternative school, winning a settlement barring use of restraints.

The administrative complaint resulted in an investigation of Jackson Public Schools, with the Department of Education agreeing with allegations. But the Jackson district made little improvement. Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Vanessa Carroll said state officials failed students through long periods of inaction and passivity. She said the state should have pushed the district aside long ago and appointed its own person to run special education, saying the state has the power to do so under federal law.

“It’s tremendously disappointing that the district is going to lose accreditation and MDE didn’t step in earlier to prevent that from happening,” Carroll said. “I don’t think revoking accreditation is going to do anything to remedy our clients’ concerns.”

With the district on the verge of losing accreditation, the state Board of Education made a new offer Oct. 19. Board Chairman Wayne Gann said in part that’s because the board wanted to give new Superintendent Cedric Gray a chance to fix problems.

The deal called for Gray and interim state Superintendent Lynn House to jointly name a special education administrator who would report directly to the state Department of Education. The district must make sure its employees cooperate with the administrator and must agree to resolve “personnel concerns” raised by the administrator. The state will withhold federal special education money until the administrator wants to spend it.

Gann said the state could crimp the flow of federal money. “It will eventually come to the point where there will either be a control or withholding of those special education funds,” he said.

Gann defended the state’s actions, saying it’s Jackson’s fault that the district didn’t improve.

“I think the state department and the state board had done everything we could possibly do to get them to come into compliance,” Gann said.

District spokesman Sherwin Johnson said Gray is letting board members explain the rejection.

“They made the vote,” Johnson said.

The Clarion-Ledger reported that two board members said before the vote that they didn’t want to give up legal rights or local control.

 

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