OPINION: The JPS optimization plan leaves much to be desired

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For a month now, the public has been receiving information from Jackson Public School District Superintendent Dr. Errick Greene regarding his proposal to eliminate 16 schools (13 elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school) for the upcoming school year. In an effort to sell the plan to the public, rather than identifying it as a reduction plan, it is termed an optimization plan.

Thus far, two public meetings have been held to discuss the plan, one at Forest Hill and one at Callaway. Two more are scheduled, one at Provine on November 6th and one at Murrah on November 14th. All of the meetings were and are scheduled for 6 p.m. The meetings thus far have generated probing questions and sober comments. The public will be able to assess the influence of the questions and comments by the nature of the final plan that emerges at the JPS board of trustees’ December 6th meeting, when the plan is scheduled to be finalized and voted on for approval.

The plan calls for the closure of Dawson, Green, Oak Forest, Obama, Sykes, Shirley, Clausell, Key, Smith, Wells APAC, Lake, Raines, and Lester elementary schools; Chastain and Whitten middle schools; and Wingfield High School. According to the superintendent, the closures are being proposed due to enrollment decline, facilities investment needs, and staff instability, along with an effort to increase competitiveness in academics, athletics, and the arts. Additionally, a need to increase Title I funding and to decrease the “carrying cost” of the surplus buildings has been mentioned.

As Dr. Greene explained the plan, he pointed to a 9-year loss of more than 9,500 students resulting in a $107.7 million loss over that same period. Of that amount, $48.1 million was paid to charter schools and $59.7 million through funds from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) were missed out on. On the other side of that equation, he states that $174.21 million would be saved by closing rather than renovating the targeted buildings; $11.31 million would be saved by not having to pay insurance, utilities, and annual maintenance and repairs; and $6.43 million would be saved from the cost of administrative and support staff salaries and benefits identified with those schools. If accurate, that estimated $191.95 million saving is impressive, especially given the $107.7 million that was lost over the 9-year enrollment decline. (Nevertheless, it is not clear that some of the repair and renovation money is not being counted twice, with the $174.21 estimated renovation cost reduction and again with the $11.31 estimated operational cost avoidance.)

Aside from what was presented by the superintendent, many question why there is such a large number of buildings in need of serious repairs and renovations since there have been two significant bond issues approved in recent times. They were designed to deal with such needs. 

Amidst the discussion of optimizing in the district, it seems that administrative size/cost is not being optimized. Just to give a few examples, there has been no discussion of the fact that even without closing 16 schools, there is no critical need for a deputy superintendent, a chief of staff, AND a chief of operations. These positions could be merged into two, if not one position. In many districts there is no chief of staff; the deputy superintendent carries on those responsibilities. The same can be said regarding having five assistant superintendents, two for the elementary schools, one for the middle schools, one for the high schools, and one for support services. Those positions could be merged into three, with one assistant for the elementary division and one for the secondary division, or one for the northern district and one for the southern district. With just a little thought and creativity, the entire organizational chart could be looked at and optimized. Such an exercise would result in much more savings than just the elimination of the targeted principals and their secretaries because the high-level administrators are well paid. Equally as important, such a move would bolster the idea that optimization is for the entire district.

Moving beyond those budgetary matters, it seems that some babies may be thrown out with the bath water if not enough attention is paid to the disruption of the school environments that have resulted in so many A-rated schools and to student-teacher ratios that are nearly ideal. It is one thing to assert that it is the teachers and the students who earned the A ratings rather than the buildings, but quite another to realistically admit that the environments and relationships play a major role in that success. It is one thing to assert that it was just “good teaching” that led to the success experienced by those A-rated schools, but it is a reality that even more “good teaching” can take place when teachers have more manageable or optimized classroom size. It is one thing to assert that, with the elementary school closures, JPS will be well below the state’s maximum student-teacher ratio, but quite another to risk upsetting that ratio when it seems to be working so well. Let’s optimize the ratios rather than increase them. 

With more effective effort/attention devoted to the problems of bullying and violence, more parents could be convinced to keep their children in JPS rather than sending them to charter schools, to other private schools, or to other school districts. This is another area that is ripe for optimization.

Finally, JPS would perhaps do well to optimize its relationships with the local and state teachers’ unions and other partners in order to increase its funding from the state and to optimize its grant writing efforts in order to increase its funds from federal and private sources. If JPS would optimize every component of its operation, it could move to a position wherein school closures would be unnecessary. More parents would return their children, more teachers would remain in the district, and we would still see academic achievement improve.

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OPINION: The JPS optimization plan leaves much to be desired

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
November 6, 2023