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First achievement for special district?

Mississippi was supposed to have a special district for troubled schools operating by now. But when, or if, the achievement school district will actually start is anyone’s guess. A year after a search for a superintendent stalled out, the Mississippi Department of Education has yet to start looking again.

The achievement school district law, which is another in a series of attempts by state lawmakers to improve the academic performance of long-struggling schools, was passed in 2016. Schools or districts that have been rated F by the state for two straight years, or rated F for two out of three years, are eligible to be absorbed into the district. A school would remain under state control at least until it scores a C rating or better for five years.

A committee decided last year that the district should only absorb whole districts, not individual schools, fearing trying to separate a school from a district would be an administrative nightmare. The group also agreed that the state should prioritize districts where half or more of all schools are rated F.

That committee even recommended that the new district should begin its work by taking over the Humphreys County and Noxubee County school districts.

But that’s where things stopped after the state Board of Education said it didn’t want to designate districts to be included until a superintendent was hired. An earlier superintendent search failed after evaluators concluded there was no one they felt was qualified.

Spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said Thursday that the department still plans to restart the search. It’s unclear, though, even if a superintendent were to be hired in early 2019 if the district would begin operating next fall.

“I’m frustrated that we’re not using it,” said Rep. Charles Busby, a Pascagoula Republican who was the prime author of the law.

The state already ended up taking over Noxubee County through a separate process after the district announced it was having financial difficulties. But Humphreys County is still eligible for a takeover, as are Greenville, Holmes County, Jackson, Sunflower County and Wilkinson County.

Jackson, of course, avoided a school takeover after Gov. Phil Bryant refused to sign a state of emergency declaration and then sought an alternative improvement process involving city leaders and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that’s still playing out. Some supporters of the achievement school district tried to place Jackson on the list of districts recommended for inclusion, which doesn’t require the governor’s approval. But the Board of Education quickly rejected it under political pressure from Bryant and others.

In some ways, the Noxubee takeover resembles the scenario envisioned for the achievement district, with the state Board of Education hiring an interim superintendent whose qualifications included a heavy dose of school takeover experience. Older takeover practices aimed to remedy accrediting violations and return a district to local control as quickly as possible. State law now calls for districts taken over in emergency situations to also remain under state control until they attain a rating of C or higher for five years, or until the state Board of Education decides to return them to local control.

State Superintendent Carey Wright has also touted the academic improvements made by the Tunica County and Leflore County districts, which are under state control. Both districts improved to a C in the 2017-18 school year, with Tunica rising from a D and Leflore County rising from an F.

Busby though, says he still believes that the state should put the achievement school district into action, saying he believes its structure offers a chance at greater improvement.

“It looks like we created something for nothing.”

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy .