Mississippi Parents Fight State Takeover of Jackson Schools

JACKSON, Miss. (CN) – A federal lawsuit filed by more than two dozen parents of students enrolled in the Jackson Public School District accuses Mississippi education officials of planning an unconstitutional state takeover of the district without any community input.

Lead plaintiff David Caballero and 29 others say in their lengthy complaint that they were deprived of hearings required by state law before a determination was made on whether an “extreme emergency situation” existed for a state takeover.

Caballero and the other parents sued Mississippi State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright; State Board of Education Chair Rosemary Aultman and Heather Westerfield, chair of the State Commission on School Accreditation, on Monday in Jackson federal court.

Wright made headlines last month when an analysis by Education Week revealed that, while Mississippi has the nation’s 46th lowest per-pupil spending rates, Wright’s $300,000 salary is the highest of any state superintendent in the country.

Last week, the Mississippi State Board of Education found sufficient evidence that an extreme emergency exists in Jackson and voted 5-2 to send a motion asking Gov. Phil Bryant to declare an emergency in the Jackson Public School District.

But according to the parents’ 41-page lawsuit, the Mississippi Department of Education’s planned takeover has been done “without any hearings for the JPS schoolchildren and JPS parents, each of which have a constitutionally-recognized interest in the JPS schoolchildren’s education.”

“If the defendants and MDE are allowed to take over the JPS District, the JPS District’s Superintendent is automatically terminated, without any due process hearing for plaintiffs, JPS schoolchildren and JPS parents, or any meaningful opportunity to be heard,” the parents say.

Their lawsuit claims that MDE has never taken over a public school district anywhere near as large as the Jackson Public School District. With roughly 27,000 students, it is the second-largest public school district in the entire state.

“Nevertheless, despite this long list of student academic failures in defendants’ and MDE’s takeovers, defendants and MDE now have their sights on taking over the JPS District, the only urban school district located in Mississippi,” the complaint states.

Caballero and the 29 other parents say the MDE violated its own procedures in conducting its hearings, and violated the Mississippi Open Meetings Act by going into an executive session closed to the public.

They want the court to issue a restraining order blocking plans for a state takeover of the Jackson Public School District until hearings have been held that comply with their procedural and substantive due process rights.

“JPS schoolchildren and JPS parents such as plaintiffs have a right to be concerned about any conservatorship proceedings, and to be heard,” their lawsuit says.

Board of Education Chair Aultman said in a statement after last week’s vote, “The Board was compelled to intervene because Board members are extremely concerned about the safety, security and educational interests of the students in the Jackson Public School District… The Board is obligated to act when conditions in a school district jeopardize students’ education.”

Gov. Bryant is responsible for making the final decision on whether an emergency situation exists in the school district.

The parents are represented by Dorsey Carson Jr. of Jackson.

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