By Beneta Burt
Special to The Mississippi Lin k
A recent media report seemed to distort Jackson Public Schools’ finances, particularly the headline claiming the district was facing “financial crisis.” This headline is misleading, meaning the entire article could be misinterpreted and wrongly imply incompetence at JPS.
Some context, perspective and facts are in order.
For sure JPS is facing budget challenges, given the Legislature’s decision to consistently underfund MAEP coupled with its decision this year to cut taxes. This means $559,555 less for the current academic year and $4 million for the next school year.
Obviously that’s a lot but it does not equal to a crisis, a term in the headline that is not directly attributed to Superintendent Cedrick Gray or anyone else in the report. Crisis connotes chaos, instability, danger. That is far from reality at JPS.
As board members, part of our fiduciary responsibility is to be sensitive about how JPS is framed, given some of the school choices that could further threaten public education. While we welcome competition from faith-based institutions, private schools and charter schools, we should not be framed – intentionally or unintentionally – as the whipping boy that helps drive enrollment elsewhere.
It’s widely known that JPS is not dealing with a stressed budget in isolation. School districts statewide – and state agencies – are facing the same set of challenges, based partly on lawmakers’ decision to cut taxes as tax collections shrink and broad needs ignored.
This systemic problem should not be lost on parents, taxpayers and voters. Jackson schools, for example, received $15 million less in 2015 that it was due had MAEP been fully funded. And over the last five years, JPS has been underfunded by about $67 million. Still, we have managed to bank $15 million in our rainy day fund.
Our budget issues, then, is far from crisis. In the current political climate, it has become routine.
Even with the cuts, we will continue to be good stewards. The district is more committed than ever to embrace its mission, which is to mold the 28,000 boys and girls into great citizens, taxpayers and leaders. And based on the state Department of Education’s assessment from last year, we are doing just that.
Our pass rate for the Third Grade Literacy Exam jumped 8 percent and is now 80 percent. At Raines Elementary School the pass rate jumped 34 percent and at Dawson Elementary it climbed 26 percent. The district’s graduation rate jumped 2 percent. At Provine High School it improved 5.2 percent. Referrals to the alternative school are down nearly 10 percent and average daily attendance is up 2.5 percent.
We will continue to innovate. Hardy Middle School will be transformed into an Academy of Career Exploration for future engineers and coders. Powell Middle School will become an Academy of Military Science for future leaders.
At JPS, we – the board of trustees, the superintendent, administrators, teachers and staff – are privileged to serve our students, parents, taxpayers and the community. We embrace all our challenges as the state’s largest, most urbane school district and we know our success overwhelms our shortcomings.
Our financial situation is not unique or in crisis. It’s just our reality – which is similar to school districts and state agencies in Mississippi. And at JPS, given our mission, we have embraced this reality.
Beneta Burt is the board president of Jackson Public Schools.
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