Natchez leaders hope for healing in community

Published 12:41 am Sunday, July 30, 2017


The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — In light of the recent controversy surrounding the school board voting to potentially raise taxes, several leaders are asking the community to come together and heal.

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Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus said no matter what race a person is, the Natchez community is in a boat together and the boat would sink if the community remains divided.

“You have to quit throwing rocks, you have to quit the name calling, you have to be respective of one another,” Lazarus said. “This whole situation is not good for the community. We need to move past this, and we need to figure out what we are going to do to resolve it.”

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said he hates to see the community divided along racial lines.

“We have got to move toward healing in this community,” he said. “We have got to begin to work together. We have to be able to get over this and move forward — we have work to do.

“It affects all people, every ethnic group that lives here, and it affects young people and old people when you have divisions.”

Grennell said a divided community impacts growth potential.

“When companies are considering Natchez and Adams County, the whole community comes up in respect to being able to recruit,” Grennell said. “When we are divided, it makes it tough to recruit.”
The Fallout

The recent turmoil follows the Natchez-Adams School Board’s decision to borrow $9 million, which would be repaid through a limited tax note. The $9 million would begin to fund renovations in the school district, though the district is also hoping to build a new high school. The district also seeks to acquire an additional $25 million through a lease program.

A group of residents sought to force the decision to borrow $9 million to a November election.  The note would likely require a 3-mill tax increase, and many residents say they cannot afford another tax increase.

Petitioners have also said the move was against the will of the community because voters had already defeated the school district’s earlier $35 million bond request for building improvements during a May election.

The petitioners, led by Kevin and Dana Wilson, however, did not get enough signatures to succeed.

When the Wilsons requested more time during a meeting earlier this month, school board member Phillip West made comments that further incited petitioners. West, in a statement, accused the petitioners of having racist motivations in opposing the $9 million loan, as the school district is majority black and the petition organizers are white.West also suggested the majority of the black voters voted for the school improvement plan in May, while the majority of the white voters voted against it.

Adams County District 4 Supervisor Ricky Gray said he believes the community has divided by raced for a long time.

“We have not just become like this, we have been like this,” Gray said. “It took this issue to bring it to the forefront.”

Gray said community leaders — including elected officials and The Natchez Democrat — are part of the problem.

When issues come up in his district, Gray said he tries to come up with the right answer and not pick sides to be liked.

“We have people that know people are wrong, and they won’t tell them they are wrong,” Gray said. “Too many leaders are picking sides and won’t tell them what is right.”

Gray said he was critical of The Democrat also for printing opinions that add fuel to the fire.

“The opinions are tearing up the community,” Gray said. “The problem with opinions is everyone has got an opinion. If your opinion does not add up to the truth, then you need to change your opinion because it is killing the community.

“When you have a divided community down racial lines, then sometimes your opinion could start a fire.”

Gray said the school district has been transparent about its intentions to build a new school since it came up last summer. If people were so concerned, they should have been packing meetings long before now.

“A lot of people don’t really understand what is going on, and they are jumping and taking sides,” Gray said. “I think everyone should have been in on the front end, not the back end, and gotten more information.

“My community is torn up, and it is over something that could have been avoided.”
Business impact

Chamber of Commerce President Debbie Hudson said she wishes city and county leaders would have collaborated for a more united effort.

“What needed to happen is that the city, county, Natchez, Inc. and the school board sit down and say, ‘What can we do working together?’” Hudson said. “The vision is ‘How can we make the school buildings better?’

“To get the buy-in from the community, that’s what it takes.”

Though Hudson said she believes a majority of residents share common ground in a desire for an improved school system, she said the recent fallout has mired the focus on that goal.

“Now we’re off the issue. We’re on whether it’s racist or not, or ‘I’m paying for everything and you’re not,’ or whatever,” Hudson said. “And that’s sad.”

Hudson said she wants to remain positive moving forward, but the way to make progress is for the community, both its leaders and its residents, to work with each other on these issues.

“Today, let’s start building on working together,” Hudson said.

Hudson also said the negative aesthetic purveyed by recent events could potentially dissuade businesses from coming to Natchez.

“If I’m a site selector looking for a place — no. I’m probably going to want to go to a community who’s better equipped to deal with these problems,” Hudson said.

“But let’s start today and deal with our problems.”

Business owner Marcia McCullough said she fears not only that businesses will avoid coming to the city, but also that current businesses will be driven out because of tax increases.

“My concern is that we are going to drive out businesses because of raising these taxes,” McCullough said. “Businesses are not going to come here when we have F-rated schools and taxes are high.”

McCullough owns Marcia’s Cottages, consisting of six properties in the Natchez Historic District. McCullough said any further tax hikes could cause her to put her properties up for sale.

While McCullough said she does believe a new school should be built eventually, she called the way the school board has gone about their process of borrowing the $9 million “underhanded.”

McCullough said she listened to Natchez-Adams Superintendent Fred Butcher talk at length about working together, but she has not seen actions to match the words.

“It was very eloquent, it was fine, but I said, ‘You are talking about us all working together when the school board went behind our backs and passed this $9 million loan without letting us know,” McCullough said.

The school board gave approximately three-and-a-half hours’ notice before its Wednesday special call meeting when the loan was approved. Though the board is legally required to give just one hour’s notice before a special call meeting, McCullough described the suddenly called meeting as “outrageous.”
The need for new schools

Gray said improving the school buildings is about one thing — safety for the children. Gray said a community is reflective of how it treats its senior citizens and its children, and the children attending the public schools are not safe with the schools as constructed.

“I’m not saying anything about test scores, or an F district, the one thing in this issue is it is not safe for the kids,” Gray said. “I don’t know nobody, whether they send their kids to Trinity, ACCS, Cathedral or Natchez High, who would want their kids in an unsafe environment.

“My philosophy at the end of the day is you have to do what is best for the community. Having our kids be in a safe environment is what’s best for the community.”

Butcher said since the inception of the project to build a new school and undertake a comprehensive renovation plan, the school district has been transparent about its plans.

Butcher said the district conducted more than 24 community forums across the county, speaking to diverse audiences, as well as with all governing boards to seek data and feedback.

“Throughout those forums, we received positive feedback and suggestions of how to move forward,” Butcher said. “We have fielded criticism that something needs to be done for improvement.”

The district took the suggestions on how it could improve and implemented that into a plan, Butcher said.

“The construction of a new school and the renovation of our current school facilities is one of the measures that we believe will help to improve our district,” Butcher said. “We do not propose that a new building will be a magic bullet for improvement. But, we do believe that a new facility will positively impact our students and our district.”

Butcher said the district has an open-door policy — for proponents and opponents alike — for how the district can best come to a consensus of how to improve the school district and ultimately the community, as well.

“We welcome any community members who want to tour our facilities to see the reasons for our project,” Butcher said. “We are open to have conversations with our community about their concerns and suggestions. At the end of the day, our primary focus is on our students and how we can provide them a quality education in safe, 21st century facilities.”