° empty

Alternative school to relocate

NATCHEZ — The company that partnered with the Natchez-Adams School District to operate Central Alternative School last year will do so again this year but in a different location.

The district approved last year a contract to outsource the operation of the school to Ombudsman Educational Services, a Chicago-based company that partners with 115 school districts in 19 states across the country and specializes in alternative education, credit recovery and other programs.

During a specially called meeting Thursday morning, school board members approved to enter into another contract with the company for the 2014-15 school year.

Changes to the contract included an agreement for the company to provide a counselor at the school and for the relocation to the Robert Lewis Magnet School campus.

The program, Superintendent Frederick Hill said, would operate out of an annexed portion of the magnet school where the alternative school’s students would not have any interaction with those at the magnet school.

“They will be self sufficient as far as their building and having all their own resources goes,” Hill said. “They’ll even have their own common and cafeteria areas to keep them separate from the magnet school building.”

Ombudsman Regional Vice President Scott Russell gave a presentation to the school board before the contract approval Tuesday and said he was pleased with the results of the program from its first year of operation.

A total of 142 students were enrolled in the program last school year with the majority of those students — 93 — being there for behavior reasons.

Russell said 70 percent of the middle school students passed at least two or more classes, and 30 high school students were able to graduate with an Ombudsman degree at the end of the year.

The company is accredited by AdvancED, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools through the U.S. and internationally. The organization was formerly known as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and is the same company that accredits the district.

That means an Ombudsman diploma carries the same weight as an NASD diploma or any others from the State of Mississippi, Hill said.

Those students aren’t counted toward the district’s overall graduation rate, but also don’t count as students who have dropped out, which Hill said impacts the district’s letter grade rating issued by the state.

“But at the end of the day, it’s giving these kids an opportunity to graduate high school,” Hill said. “I am pleased with what occurred there last year, and I know we’re going to work even harder in the 14-15 school year.”

Before the contract was approved, board member Benny Wright said he wanted to ensure that students throughout the district weren’t going to be pushed into getting an Ombudsman diploma and not have the option of graduating with their peers at Natchez High School.

Hill said the program would not serve as an immediate alternative to any student in the district.

“These students remain at Natchez High School until the last possible minute they can to determine if they can graduate at Natchez High,” Hill said. “It’s not a matter of just trying to get rid of these kids, but instead we’re giving them one more opportunity to earn a diploma.”

In other news from the meeting:

4The board approved a $140,000 loan from the district’s 16th section principal fund account to pay for remodeling costs and new equipment for one school.

Sixteenth section land is public acreage that was set aside when Mississippi was first surveyed in order to help fund education by allowing school districts to collect interest and revenue by leasing those lands.

The lands can be leased for farming, hunting, agriculture or oil and gas exploration. A portion of the account must remain untouched by the district, while the interest can be spent.

The district can borrow money from that trust to pay for certain things like building new buildings, repairing or maintaining buildings or transportation. Any money borrowed from the trust has to be paid back with interest.

The district will borrow $140,000 to pay for cafeteria equipment for the Central Alternative School building, which will house district ninth graders as the Freshman Academy, as well as a new air conditioning unit and the replacement of flooring at the Steckler Multipurpose Building.

Hill said the improvements to Steckler were necessary to provide the district with a large meeting space of their own.

“I think we’re at a point with Steckler where something has to be done,” Hill said. “When we have a large activity for our staff, we have to go to the (Natchez) Convention Center because we don’t have any facility large enough. Now, Steckler will be that location.”

Hill said he felt confident in the district’s budget to borrow the money and pay back the funds with interest.

The district’s 16th section principal fund currently has a balance of $326,722.

The terms of the contract approved Tuesday state the district is borrowing the funds for a term not exceeding 20 years and will be repaid with a 4 percent interest rate.

“We decided to borrow the money instead of pulling a large chunk of money out of the budget,” Hill said.

 The board finalized July 10 as the date for its annual budgetary public hearing.

Before adopting its annual budget, the district must advertise how much it plans to ask for in ad valorem taxes for the upcoming fiscal year.

The board plans to finalize that amount today during a budgetary work session in order to begin advertising the amount July 2 and 9 ahead of the ahead of the public hearing.