OPINION: Only eight months to make JPS’s plan an optimization plan    

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After several months of public discussion, the Jackson Public Schools Board of Trustees voted to approve the plan to close 11 public schools at the end of the current school year. The plan, which the superintendent calls an optimization plan, calls for the closure of Dawson, Marshall, Sykes, Smith, Shirley, Lake, Raines, and Lester elementary schools; Chastain and Whitten middle schools; and Wingfield High School. The following school year, 2024-2025 year, Obama Elementary School will be merged with Northwest Middle School and Wells Elementary School will be merged with Bailey APAC Middle School.

Although that part of the plan was the most publicized, there were other components to the plan. Several other issues will need to be considered and worked out during the next eight months or so.

For starters, there is the need to integrate the faculties and students of the schools being closed with their companion schools that are remaining open. The new schools need to have developed the kinds of teams and atmospheres that will enable them to achieve the highest rankings, or at least the rankings that they had achieved separately, as they integrate. The schools’ relationships and atmospheres must also be developed in such ways as to minimize dissension and violence on their campuses. The integrative work needs to have already started, but definitely needs to be completed by the start of the school year. 

In the same breath, there needs to be a specific plan that downsizes the administration and central office staff. In a previous article, we suggested that there will be no need for a deputy superintendent, a chief of staff, and a chief of operations, along with five assistant superintendents and nearly a score of other directors and assistants. By trimming the administrative staff, more classroom teachers could be hired, which could reduce student to teacher ratios and which is where the actual teaching takes place affecting school rankings. These savings could also be used to help boost teacher salaries.

When questioned by both board members and members of the public, Superintendent Errick Greene stated that “right-sizing” the central office staff would take place. That part of the plan, however, will need to be scrutinized by the board and the public because too often such matters are not prioritized because these personnel are “very close” to the administrators making the decisions. Yet, it is in this area that significant funds can be saved without affecting student academic achievement.

Thirdly, the closure of 13 school sites means that many neighborhoods will find themselves with vacant buildings. The downside of this is that blight, deterioration, and crime will likely increase in those neighborhoods. But the upside is that businesses and community services can be increased, based upon how the buildings are re-used. The buildings could be leased, re-purposed, or demolished. (An attorney general’s opinion has stated that sixteenth section land cannot be sold or swapped.)

Decisions of what happens to each building will be determined by committees that report to the administration and eventually to the board. Care should be taken in naming these committees so that community preferences and needs are identified in addition to and on par with those of business enterprises. Care must be taken also so that conflicts of interest and favoritism in the re-purposing and/or leasings are eliminated.

All of these issues are matters that underscore the need for the greater involvement of citizens in what happens regarding the public schools. Citizens could be of tremendous importance in pressuring the legislature to fully fund and even to improve the MAEP formula. They can be of great importance in helping to promote and protect the full and progressive education of their children. They can have more influence in the selection of the district’s administrative personnel. That is true democratic participation and should not be turned away due to the fears of officials at the schools or in the state legislature. 

This brings us, finally, to the suggestion that the public needs to be able to send in its ideas for the board’s agenda at its meetings, not just a three-minute time slot on the agenda after the agenda has been decided. As many citizens realized during the current sessions, they may be listened to or merely tolerated, responded to or ignored. Citizens can help truly optimize JPS’s plan and do a lot more. 

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OPINION: Only eight months to make JPS’s plan an optimization plan    

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
January 1, 2024