Residents seek details about school takeover

By JOFFRE WASHINGTON,

About 100 concerned Yazoo City residents were in attendance Wednesday night at the L.T. Miller Community Center for a public forum sponsored by community leader and activist Cynthia Walker to gain information, voice their concerns and ask questions regarding the recent State takeover of the Yazoo City Municipal School District.

In attendance to address the crowd were state representatives Bryant Clark (District 47) and Rufus Straughter (District 51), Christine Bischoff with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Nsombi Lambright with One Voice, an organization that will assist Yazoo City with the takeover process.

According to Mississippi Code 37-17-17, the Achievement School District (ASD) authorizes the Mississippi Board of Education to takeover schools and school districts deemed to be failing. If a school or district earns a “F” rating, in accordance with the Mississippi accountability model, for two consecutive years or for two of three consecutive years (beginning in 2016-2017) it will result in immediate absorption into the ASD.

Yazoo City Schools and Humphreys County Schools met this requirement and will now be placed in the ASD, a state-wide district run by a state-appointed Superintendent.

The public forum was arranged by Walker, who is staunchly opposed to the takeover and is asking the people of Yazoo City to join the cause.

“My first objective was to get the citizens informed (about the takeover) from knowledgeable sources and that measure was accomplished by the guest speakers,” said Walker. “There is a lot of misinformation floating around so we need to have as much accurate information as possible as we proceed. We cannot sit idly by and let this takeover happen. Not without a fight. When your schools are deemed a failure, your community is deemed a failure, and I am here to say that we are not failures.”

Yazoo City High School senior Cree Williams made an impassioned plea to those in attendance to do whatever they can to save Yazoo City’s schools from being taken over.

“I am graduating this year so this will not affect me, but it will affect those coming behind me,” said Williams. “We have a lot of talented students in our school district; we just need the parents and the community to come together and support our schools.”

According to Lambright, many of the procedures and steps to be taken are still unclear because this is the first time the state is undertaking a takeover with the new Achievement School District.

An important piece of information that was divulged to the crowd was the length of time a school or district must remain in the ASD and who may eventually assume control of the district. According to the new law, when a school or district maintains a rating of “C” or better for five consecutive years, the State Board of Education may decide to return the school or district back to the local governance (provided the school or schools in question are not conversion charter schools).

Local governance may include a traditional school board model of governance or other new form of governance such as mayoral control or another type of governance. When deciding which option to take, the State Board of Education will solicit community input in helping make the best decision. The timeline to return a school or district back to local control shall be at the discretion of the State Board, but will never take longer than five years.

Representative Clark encouraged the crowd to remain vigilant and to hold those in control accountable for the decisions and actions they make.

Walker added that a recent takeover in a similar school district in Louisiana was not successful so she believes the chances of the measure having success in Mississippi is not likely.

“Recently there were 118 schools in Louisiana that failed under this new district model. That should speak volumes,” said Walker. “Those schools have the same demographic makeup as ours. That is not a good sign for our school district.”

Moving forward, Walker encourages the community to get involved and make sure their concerns are heard. A petition opposing the takeover is circulating and Walker is hoping to get over 2,000 signatures to take to the legislature.

Said Walker, “This should be a call to our community to come together. We have a voice, but we must use that voice. We cannot remain silent. Our children’s future depends on it. The state is mandated to take citizen input. We do have options.”

Those who have questions and concerns are encouraged to contact the MS Department of Education at 601-359-3513 or One Voice at 601-960-9594. Officials from the Mississippi Department of Education were invited to the forum to address the public and answer any questions, but none were in attendance.