District does poor job communicating

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 7, 2010

If you overlooked the angry faces, clenched fists and sheets of notebook paper full of scrawl and jumbled calculations, you might have thought you had stumbled into a shuffleboard game on the top deck of an AARP cruise.

The older men, mostly white, seemingly stepped right out of retirement, clad in shorts, slip-on shoes and un-tucked button-down shirts, for last week’s school board tax hearing.

But the men weren’t as relaxed as their attire suggested. They came upset and ready to voice their opinions, representing a large local population of residents on a fixed income unhappy about a proposed tax increase.

A few other faces — women, black and much younger — dotted the room, but the majority certainly had age, race, stage of life and opinion in common.

An hour later, all the questions had been asked, but few had been answered.

More than once during the meeting men in the audience said they were struggling to understand the school district’s math.

“I must be dull,” one man said.

“Math is not my long suit,” another voice from across the room said.

The crowd was struggling to understand why the Natchez-Adams School District spends more per pupil and assesses more tax mils than the state average.

On occasion, someone at the head table full of school board members and district personnel shot back a one or two word answer, offering little reasoning behind it.

For example, the Natchez district’s expenditures per pupil are higher because of the number of special education students, the superintendent replied.

The expected reply from the crowd was, “Well, doesn’t every district have special education students?”

Of course, but Natchez has more, Superintendent Anthony Morris answered when pressed.

The conversation ended there.

A cursory glance at documents on the Mississippi Department of Education’s Web site confirms that Morris is correct.

In fact, the Natchez-Adams district has more special education students by a long shot compared to districts similar in size.

Natchez — with a 2008-2009 enrollment of 3,988 — had 143 special education students that year. The next closest number was 135 in the larger Hattiesburg district, total enrollment 4,485. Most districts close in size have less than 100 special education students.

The number of private schools in town — without special education programs like the public schools — no doubt explains the numbers.

What a world of difference having those numbers at hand could have made last Thursday.

The men and women at the boardroom table were noticeably and understandably nervous and tense. They must have felt a bit under attack, especially after one member of the public said it was time to “get rid of the fat hogs at the table.”

But the problem Thursday wasn’t too many fat hogs, it was one too few. For several years now the Natchez-Adams School District has been without a public relations director.

No one at the district level appropriately interacts with the public. No one is actively in the community every day promoting the success of star students, highlighting the talents of great teachers and explaining to the taxpayers how their dollars are working.

No one is sitting ready to explain details like special education costs.

And of the top administrators sitting at the boardroom table last week, no one wanted to answer questions and change opinions. Their faces and mannerisms exuded a different message altogether — Get me out of here.

The small tax increase the district has proposed may be every bit needed and justified, but until the district and board realizes the need to reach out to the public — young and apathetic to old and cranky — the system won’t succeed and our children might not either.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.