Governor criticizes education agency on after-school money

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Gov. Phil Bryant is calling for immediate action by the state Board of Education to remedy misspending of federal money that's threatening the state's ability to fund after-school programs.

Superintendent Carey Wright last week told the state board that she was suspending federal money for after-school programs, after Department of Education officials mishandled grant money and tried to cover up mistakes by wrongly dipping into another pot of federal funds.

Some programs that had previously received funding could lose it as Mississippi could have to repay up to $19 million in federal money, and it's unclear if any new ones will get it. Federal officials haven't yet proposed a remedy to Mississippi. The programs were supposed to serve 29,000 students in 67 districts and two charter schools this year.

"This is the latest example of what has become a pattern of poor decision-making and mismanagement at the Mississippi Department of Education," Bryant said in a statement Monday. "The State Board of Education must remedy this immediately."

It's the latest potshot by Bryant at the leadership of Wright, although Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler didn't reply when asked if Bryant wanted Wright to resign or be fired. Chandler wrote in an email that Bryant wants "a thorough and independent review of the internal controls covering grant proceeds and other expenditures to determine if other problems exist within the Mississippi Department of Education."

Board of Education Chair Rosemary Aultman said Wright is responding quickly to the problem and retains the board's confidence. Aultman credits her for rising test scores and high school graduation rates.

"Dr. Wright has the support of the board," said Aultman, the former mayor of Clinton. "She immediately took action. She put a plan in place so that something of this magnitude will never happen again."

Aultman said she'd had no contact with Bryant regarding Wright. The board is independent, but the governor appoints five of its nine members.

Earlier this year, Bryant vetoed a bill that would have extended the department's exemption from civil service rules, partly over concerns that Wright's reorganization was creating too many highly-paid executives. In May, the board cut the salary of Chief Information Officer John Porter after state Auditor Stacey Pickering found Porter was illegally making $195,000, more than the allowed ceiling of 1.5 times the governor's salary.

Bryant, along with most lawmakers, also attacked Wright's initial decision to follow federal guidance to allow transgender students to use a bathroom consistent with their current gender identity. The board reversed that decision.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn said the problem could be examined as part of a legislative spending review.

"This is an example of agency spending that will be reviewed by the budget working groups over the next several months," said Laura Hipp, Reeves' spokeswoman.


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