Community activists battled for the Rowan School building, and thereby, for Black public education

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For the second time within a month, the board of trustees for the Jackson Public School District considered a proposal from Midtown Partners, Inc. to lease the Rowan Middle School building. Midtown Partners desires to lease the building in order to serve as the campus for Midtown Public Charter School. Just as in the meeting earlier in the month, the proposal was tabled. Board Secretary Robert Luckett made a motion to approve the lease agreement. His motion died for lack of a second. At that point, Board President Edward Sivak asked if he could get a motion to table the item. Luckett again made such a motion, which was followed by a long silence. Eventually, Board Vice President Barbara Hilliard seconded the motion and it was tabled by a voice vote. 

That fate of the proposed lease agreement drew sighs of relief and disappointment. The district superintendent and supporters of Midtown were disappointed that the proposal had not been approved. At the same time, they were relieved that it still had a chance to be reconsidered. 

As had been the case two weeks earlier, the supporters had felt that the agreement would have been approved. Instead, it had lost support. 

Two weeks earlier, it had appeared that three and possibly four of the seven trustees would support it. At the second meeting, however, one of those possible supporters was lost. In the latest meeting, that board member had a change of heart and did not support the motion made by Luckett to approve the document.

Community activists and members of the board of trustees who strongly opposed the move to lease to Midtown were relieved that the proposal had to be tabled, but were disappointed that it had been given another chance if and when it is taken from the table. Some of the opponents of the idea of leasing to a charter school felt that had no one seconded the motion to table the item, it would have just been dead.

In the aftermath of the proposal being tabled last week, a great deal of work was done by many concerned community activists. A public letter of appreciation for the support of the four trustees who had, by their expressed questions and concerns, caused the proposal to be tabled on April 15 was published in the Jackson Advocate newspaper. Additional letters had been written to the superintendent and to each trustee outlining the reasons why the writers felt that the Rowan building should not be leased for use by Midtown Public Charter School. There had been other initiatives to get their message out to the public, including appearances on radio talk shows. That work was also supported by and culminated with six of the concerned citizens making public comments before the board of trustees. Among those speaking was Senator Sollie Norwood, who was familiar with the public/charter school struggle from the standpoint of having been a public school board of trustees member and a state legislator. 

On the other side of the issue, three citizens spoke in favor of approving the lease agreement. Two of the speakers were parents and the other a chef, who is apparently a subcontractor with Midtown Partners. They were emotionally supported by several persons, some of whom were officials with Midtown.

After it became apparent that the proposal would not pass, Luckett noted the comments made by the supporters from Midtown and referenced a petition of support that was signed by 389 individuals. He also took the opportunity to express his disagreement with the “characterization” of some of the individuals who had spoken against leasing the building to Midtown, including several former employees of Jackson State University.

Luckett’s comments were in stark contrast to the lived-reality of Black Mississippians and the culture from which they emerged. For them, the vote to decide whether or not to lease the public school facility to a charter school entity was/is far more than just a financial decision to be made at a particular point in history. Wrapped in that decision and going forward is the struggle for the right and access to public education, especially on the part of Black families. 

That right and that access to a public education in Mississippi had been fought for and put into operation by people such as Black state superintendent of education Thomas Cardozo and by those who drafted the Mississippi Constitution of 1868, especially the newly freed Black law makers. Much of the support for public education, however, was lost as opponents of public schools drafted the Constitution of 1890, making public education optional as a state responsibility rather than mandatorily required. Public education was further underminded by the famously anti-Black public education rhetoric of many white leaders, including Theodore Bilbo, James Vardaman, and Kirk Fordice. 

Black people know of the mass flight of white families from the court-ordered public schools in the 1960s and 70s. That flight was accompanied by many white school officials transferring public school facilities, equipment, and materials to private groups in order to help establish the segregated academies. 

Black people know of the ongoing refusal of the state legislature to fully find the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. They know of the simultaneous passing of laws to provide vouchers for children in private schools and to create charter schools, both from money that should have been going to the public schools.

Based upon that history, Black citizens, parents, and board members realize that they must take a stand in their local districts to put a halt to the continuous financial assaults on the public schools upon which their children almost totally depend. They feel that they cannot afford to take still another hit, watching their trustees vote to continue the assault and then praying that the public schools can stand another year.

If one paid attention to the optics of the situation at the meeting, what he/she could have seen was two white men, who may otherwise have been allies of Black Mississippians, siding with an initiative that slowly destroys public education. They may have been driven to that point by bad information as well as by the fact that they have not had to walk in the shoes of Black Mississippians.

After the board of trustees’ meeting, many of the Black activists who had attended expressed two consolations. They were pleased that five Black board members had followed the wishes of their neighbors and not voted to support the proposal, and they were pleased that as a group they had lived to fight another day. Along that line, they expressed the belief that this will be a long struggle. They plan to be prepared for as long as they are needed. 

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Community activists battled for the Rowan School building, and thereby, for Black public education

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 30, 2022